Category Archives: Religion

Jesus in “Supernatural”: Part 2


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You can still find my reviews here of North Carolina ghost story books, and notes about my folklore research on Patreon. Contribute monthly via Patreon (which includes perks), make a one-time donation through Paypal, or buy us a coffee. Due to the Coronavirus outbreak, production of season 15 was interrupted and 15.13 will be the last episode aired “for a while.” The show was supposed to finish up this fall, as the only original programming on the CW before January, but so far, the Creation cons have been postponed into next year and the cast and crew remain at home. They did put out a poster for the final episodes and include the show in a new promo. So, there’s that.

Note that I heartily endorse the cast and crew staying home until it’s safe. I sure hope CW head Mark Pedowitz is taking that safety of his employees a lot more seriously than it seems in his most recent interview.

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spoilers but no proselytizing ahoy

I’m happy to report that I’ve received enough “coffee” from Ko-Fi to achieve the goal of posting one new retro review per week of the show until I’m all caught up. With this article done, expect me to get back in the review saddle with season nine’s “The Purge” this coming week.

When I wrote the first part of this article, it was just one part and season 10 had not yet begun. Since then, I’ve been asked to discuss what has happened after season 9 in Christological terms. There has been a lot of Christological material, particularly in season 11, though it’s become increasingly scattered since that season. Still, between Dean being the Firewall Between Light and Dark (and saying yes to an alternate version of the Archangel Michael, before becoming his Cage through sheer willpower and the Power of Family), and Jack the Super Sparkly Archangel Naphil son of Lucifer, there’s a lot to unpack here (that’s not even getting into the Mark of Cain). And since the first article was so long, it seemed likely this coda would get lost in the wash at the end. So, I made it its own article. Which is good, because this one ran really long.

Ripping off the Bible

You want to know what I’d like to see in the final scene of Supernatural? Dean as the new God, flanked by Castiel and Billie, watching Sam, finally retired, with the rest of the surviving Team Free Will after the final battle. After assuring himself that his family is safe and reasonably happy, he turns to Castiel and Billie, and says, “We got work to do.” Because making the SPNverse the happy and fair place envisioned by the Family Business motto would take a whole other show.

Let’s roll back a few seasons. Dean had some labels attributed to him from season 4 onward that were Christological. For example, he was referred to as the “Righteous Man” in “On the Head of a Pin” (4.16) in season 4 by Hell’s Torturer, WED Alastair. According to Alastair, the breaking of a Righteous Man by getting him to choose to become a torturer was the First Seal. Note that many fans often incorrectly say that Dean broke the First Seal, while Sam broke the Final Seal, but this is not true. Just as Lilith became the Final Seal when Sam killed her, Dean became the First Seal when he broke. Dean was the First Seal.

Biblically, the Righteous Man was a series of allusions to a figure in the Old Testament that Christians later identified as Jesus Christ. The most striking example is the first verse of Psalm 22, which is evoked in the description of Jesus’ crucifixion and its immediate aftermath: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Thus, in Christian thought, the Righteous Man isn’t just an innocent or righteous person who could be anybody, but a singular title for Christ.

So, when some fans claim that John was a Righteous Man who didn’t break, first of all, it’s unlikely he didn’t break. When the Hell Gate opens at the end of “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2” (2.22), in the season 2 finale, his soul is both free and near enough to the gate to escape. That means he couldn’t have been on Alastair’s rack. Second, there is only one Righteous Man identified in the show and his identity is revealed by what he does and by what happens next. Third, there’s little onscreen evidence to indicate that John was righteous. Even before Mary died, he was innocent, not righteous. As a Hunter, he crossed that moral line many times and while he showed remorse over it, he never actually changed his ways.

Similarly, there is the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, Chapter 42 (rendered as the Servant of Heaven on the show). Rabbinical scholars identified the Servant in Isaiah as a metaphor for the faithful remnant of Israel, following Babylon’s conquest of Judah in 587 BCE. Ecclesiastical scholars identified the Servant with a prototypical version (or a prophecy) of Christ. Other such biblical references are to Christ or to Ancient Israelite prophets, especially Moses.

In the show, the Servant of Heaven is only referenced in one episode, season 5’s “99 Problems” (5.17), which leads into “Point of No Return” (the episode where Dean tries to say yes to Michael and ends up stabbing Michael’s emissary, the seraph Zachariah, instead, when backed into a corner by the torture of his brothers).

In “99 Problems,” Team Free Will discovers that they are up against the Whore of Babylon. The Whore is lurking inside the dead body of an alleged prophet, Leah, the wholesome daughter of a non-denominational minister. In this guise, she is tempting his overzealous flock into a murderous witchhunt against a plague of demons (who are working with the Whore) that is beleaguering their town. It was actually a belief among many churchmen in early medieval Europe that the Devil tempted gullible peasants into damning themselves by persecuting others under the belief that they were witches. So, it didn’t just start in the skeptical Enlightenment wake of the Reformation era witchcrazes.

As Dean sarcastically puts it (foreshadowing his calling out the angel Metatron for doing the same thing in the season 9 finale, “Do You Believe in Miracles?” (9.23)), the Whore is leading this wayward flock “to slaughter and kill and sing peppy little hymns.”

There is much debate within the episode about who can destroy the Whore. Castiel insists she can only be killed by a “Servant of Heaven.” But even Castiel has no way of identifying one, though he’s pretty confident none of TFW is one. He is fallen, Dean lacks faith, and Sam is an “abomination.” Dean’s lack of faith is perceived as weakness by Castiel.

In the final battle, though, as the Leah!Whore is exhorting a grieving couple to burn alive a bunch of their friends and neighbors, she attacks Dean during the fight. When he tries to grab the special weapon needed for the Servant to kill her, she scoffs, mocking the idea of his being the Great Vessel (Michael’s), let alone that he might be a Servant of Heaven. She calls him “pathetic, self-hating and faithless.”


Right before he stabs her to death, to the astonishment of everyone in the room (including her), he says, “Don’t be so sure – Whore.” In typical Kripke-and-Gamble-era fashion, where nothing that Dean does is actually that big of a deal and is given the least exciting possible reason, Sam chooses to see this as an indication that Dean is about to say yes to Michael and nothing more momentous than that. Never mind that Dean being a vessel of Michael is significant in a Christological sense. Michael has been seen as the pre-mortal version of Christ in sects such as the Seventh Day Adventists. So, it goes by the wayside along with the rest of Dean’s season 5 Michael storyline in the next episode.

Ripping off comic books

Fast forward to season 10, after Dean is “cured” of being a demon, but continues to bear the Mark of Cain that he took on in the middle of season 9 as the only way to slay another evil demon, Abaddon. Now, there are many Christological allusions in this storyline, especially once it morphs into the Amara storyline in season 11, and it was very popular (so buckle up). But first, let’s talk about its origins. The most obvious is the antihero/villain Saint of Killers from 1990s Vertigo comic Preacher.

I’m going to be honest here. I never quite warmed to Preacher during its run and I’m not a huge fan of Garth Ennis. Ennis’ Preacher is a classic case of 90s edgelord comics, with a lot of intentional blasphemy, gross-out humor (especially in the art), and less-than-stellar writing about gender, race and GLBT tropes. Despite the success of the TV adaptation, I don’t think the comic has aged all that well. I mean, way to give Tulip a great intro and then turn her into a useless Girlfriend character for the rest of the story, dude.

Now I don’t mind edgy writing when it works and I don’t care about “blasphemy,” either (it’s largely in the eye of the beholder), but I do object to rendering large subjects petty and small when you’re not actually doing satire. Or, at least, not very successful satire. So, yeah, might be a bit harsh on Ennis from here on out.

There are two fairly obvious steals from Preacher by the Supernatural writers. One is the Saint of Killers. The Saint is your classic Western cliché of a bad man reformed by a good woman. Think Unforgiven (1992), or The Outlaw Jose Wales (1976), or early John Wayne vehicle Angel and the Badman (1947). In his mortal life, the Saint even fought on the side of the Confederacy, a common part of this trope.

After his new family is murdered, he goes on a bloody rampage of revenge, but is killed before he quite completes it. Upon his arrival in Hell, his hatred makes it literally freeze over. To get rid of him, the Angel of Death agrees to trade places with him and gives him two pistols made out of the Angel’s own sword. They can kill anything. The Saint’s first victim is the Devil himself. He then returns to Earth and completes his vengeance, with a high body count of innocents. The Saint doesn’t care about collateral damage. Heaven then puts him to sleep until he is awakened over a century later and sent after one Jesse Custer (JC – Jesus Christ, geddit? Hahahahaha).

This where the other Supernatural, uh, “borrowing” comes in. Jesse is a young preacher from a very screwed-up Louisiana family (cough-liketheStynes-coughcough) who is accidentally fused with a being known as Genesis in the middle of a sermon. God had Genesis created from the union between an angel and a demon because He got bored and wanted to create a worthy adversary that would love him entirely of its own free will (God’s a creep in this story, too). Possession by Genesis gives Jesse the power of the Voice of God, where he can compel almost anyone to do whatever he wants them to do.

Jesse eventually dies (he gets the Saint to kill him so the Saint is free to go kill his real enemy), loses Genesis, is resurrected, and wins Tulip back (she had become disgusted after acting as a point of conflict between Jesse and his vampire BFF for most of series, and bailed on him). But not before Jesse has told the Saint who really killed his family – God. The Saint enters Heaven, slaughters the angels, kills God as God tries to bargain with him, sits on God’s celestial throne … and goes back to sleep. Because peace and being done are all he ever wanted.

Now, it’s fairly obvious that Supernatural has put Dean Winchester in the Saint of Killers role and Jack Kline in the Jesse Custer/Genesis role (which does imply that Dean will eventually be the one who kills God). With some serial numbers filed off, of course. The Mark of Cain storyline works much better, though, than pretty much anything to do with Jack. The reasons can be found both in the source material and in the show’s own universe.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Supernatural doing its own take on this hoary old tale. The creators of Preacher themselves admitted that they based the Saint on a combination of characters played by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. A lot of what they did in the comic was hardly all that original. It was the way they used it to tell a story that made it popular.

Further, Supernatural has always been an intentionally metatextual commentary on the horror genre – a horror movie every week, as Kripke originally put it. Hence the MOTW and urban legend format. So, it shouldn’t be any shock that the writers do riffs on various horror storylines and tropes, past and present. That’s the whole point.

But the show has done this with varying success. In the case of the Saint of Killers vs. the Mark of Cain, I think the show improved on the comic. In the comic, the Saint is a one-dimensional antihero, notable mainly for his implacable hate.

The Mark of Cain storyline, on the other hand, was given to one of the two leads and damned if it didn’t fit like a glove. It became an amazingly apt metaphor for Dean’s series-long simmering rage and madness, his struggle to control himself, not to harm innocents. Dean is a Hero (albeit a very dirty one), but he has an enormous dark side (what Jung would call his “shadow”) that could turn him into a monster like those he hunts if he’s not careful. He and Sam keep each other (mostly) human.

Dean stands out from other Hunters, indeed every other character in the story, with his philosophy of the Family Business (“Saving People, Hunting Things”). The basic, and revolutionary, idea is that it is as (in fact, more) important to save people and make their lives better, as it is to kill the supernatural things that threaten them. Dean attributes its origins to John, but there is very little (okay, no) evidence that John cared enough about saving people to make it a primary philosophical tenet. He was all about the revenge and if innocents got killed as collateral damage, oh, well. The story of Jo Harvelle’s father pretty much sums that up.

Dean has modified and fine-tuned this philosophy over the years. Mostly, it involved changing the definition of “people.” He began the series hard-wired to believe that all humans were “people” and all monsters were “things.” But he has (thanks in large part to Sam’s influence and example in episodes like season 2’s “Bloodlust” (2.03)) changed that to believe that some humans are monsters and some monsters are people. It all depends on what they do, not what they are. That’s a novel concept in Supernatural, where, from the start, biology is destiny.

Dean, the founder of Team Free Will, introduces a dangerous and revolutionary idea in the show’s second episode, “Wendigo” (1.02). He proselytizes and spread this idea with increasing success over the years because it provides Hunters (and some monsters) a way out of their dark and bloody worldview, a light in the darkness. It is the Supernatural version of Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation in the New Testament.

So, where Dean gets into most dangerous territory during the Mark of Cain storyline is when he kills humans/almost humans in two major incidents in season 10. One occurs when the daughter of Castiel’s vessel Jimmy Novak (and a former vessel of his, as well), Claire, pops back up in season 10 in “The Things We Left Behind” (10.09). She had last appeared in season 4’s “The Rapture” (4.20). Her mother having disappeared years before, Claire has fallen in with a Fagan-like low-level criminal who uses street kids to commit crimes for him. When he finds himself in major debt to a local drug dealer, he sells Claire to the dealer, but TFW saves her at the last minute. Playing the rear guard, Dean is ambushed by the dealer’s gang, while Claire’s “mentor” looks on apathetically.

At this point in season 10, for dealing with the Mark, Dean has already tried self-control, heroic suicide (in a sacrificial battle against an Angel Tableted-up Metatron at the end of season 9), and is now back to self-control by the skin of his teeth, along with a hefty self-medicating dose of his usual drinking and prescription drug abuse. He is acutely aware of the consequences if he dies in the fight and tries to warn off the gang. They, of course, have no idea and their own bloodlust is up, anyway, so they commence trying to beat him to death. This … doesn’t end well. For them.

Back in the car, TFW clues in that they have accidentally abandoned Dean when Sam hears Dean’s roar of fury as he loses control and cuts loose. They burst into the house to find the gang all dead (including Claire’s creepy “mentor”) and Dean covered in blood, per his recent and recurring nightmare. Claire freaks out and spends the next episode trying to kill him, but after this backfires spectacularly, and he is stuck babysitting her at one point, they end up bonding over miniature golf. From then on, Claire holds a big hero worship torch for Dean and tries to emulate him as a Hunter.

The other incident is later, darker and far more clear-cut in its moral risk for Dean (no self-defense involved here). In the process of secretly working to lift the curse from Dean’s arm, Sam recruits (forcibly, in some cases) a crew with different talents. One of them is Sam and Dean’s perky, Mary Sue-ish Kid Sister From Another Mother, Charlie.

After Charlie steals the Book of the Damned (a book that mysteriously calls to Dean, in an intriguing storyline that sadly goes nowhere) from a sinister family of body-parts-stealing necromancers known as the Stynes (yes, as in Frankenstein), they catch up to her and kill her. Furious with Sam for putting her at risk, Dean seeks bloody vengeance against the Stynes in the penultimate episode of the season, “The Prisoner” (10.22). And he kills every last one, including one reluctant boy who may (or may not) have been redeemable.

Dean’s rampage is brutally satisfying. When he returns to the Bunker to find the remaining Stynes ransacking it and about to set his home on fire, the scene is strongly evocative of the dragon Smaug returning to his cave in The Hobbit to find Bilbo and the dwarves raiding it. He comes very close to the line here when he kills the last Styne, the well-meaning but weak Cyrus, but he doesn’t quite cross over it.

The main problem here is not that these people do not deserve it or even that they are humans and not supernatural monsters (albeit the Stynes, like witches, are in a very gray area). Because they do deserve it. Even Cyrus never quite meets the threshold of redemption because he never has the courage to do anything actually redemptive. The most he does is stand by and wimper some protests that his relatives ignore. He even commits a murder (however reluctantly) because he’s too afraid to stand up to his family. He knows what he is supposed to do morally, but he never actually follows up on it. It takes more than knowing what you are supposed to do – you also have to do it.

Compare him, for example, to Christoph Nauhaus in “The One You’ve Been Waiting For (12.05). Christoph, after much waffling, stands up to his crazy Thule father and helps the Brothers kill the resurrected Hitler, saving an innocent in the process. Yeah, it’s not until his father orders him executed, but still, Christoph chooses to help the Brothers instead of just running away. Christoph is definitely a gray character, but he ends up choosing a side and the Brothers let him live (however reluctantly) afterward. That’s a redemption arc.

The problem with Dean’s killings of these humans in Christological terms is not that they don’t deserve it (they all do), but that the justice he metes out is Old Testament, not New Testament. Compare this with Canadian indie horror film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (2001). In this amiably bloody homage to 70s exploitation horror flicks, Jesus has returned to earth in preparation for the Second Coming. But he takes a sidetrip from the Apocalypse to save the lesbians of Ottawa from a gang of mean-spirited and homophobic vampires (the film is very pro-LGBT and even includes a campy, but holy, trans Good Samaritan).

Jesus has no problems with kicking vampire ass, but he only really loses his temper and unleashes his divine wrath near the end. In a junkyard, in the middle of the fight, he turns almost all of the vampires to dust. But his two closest and most faithful disciples beg him to spare two of the female vampires, with whom they have fallen in love. This actually includes the vampire henchwoman of the head bad guy, who has racked up a considerable body count of her own. With a bemused shrug at the mysteries of human romantic love, Jesus grants their request, and even restores the vampires to full life and humanity. At the end of the day, what makes him unique is his infinite capacity for divine compassion and lack of jealousy.

Compassion is what Dean is (mostly) lacking as the Mark of Cain increasingly takes hold of him. He starts to lose his grasp on the “saving people” side of the Family Business equation, though he never quite lets it go. Even as a demon, he only beats Cole, but doesn’t kill him, in “Reichenbach” (10.02). he also chooses to spare the life of a woman whose unfaithful husband sold his soul to have her murdered when she engaged in adulterous payback and drives off his waitress girlfriend’s abusive ex with a brutal beating (“Black” (10.01)). Nor is he even remotely tempted by Crowley’s offer to be Hell’s second-in-command, let alone to unseat Crowley from his throne.

While he does lose his temper against Claire’s assailants, he does try to warn them beforehand not to kill him (knowing that then, his demonic side would simply take over). And even at his coldest with the Stynes, he still warns them about coming back “with black eyes.” Dean is acutely aware of the double-edged sword of his immortality. Unable to engineer his own death, as Cain did when Cain was no longer able to control himself, Dean eventually summons Death and strikes a deal with him to be exiled forever away from humans so that he can no longer harm anyone in the season 10 finale, “Brother’s Keeper” (10.23).

He is willing to do something similar years later when Billie shows him the only way to contain alt-Michael, then trapped inside his head, in a Ma’lak Box, at the end of “Nihilism” (14.10) (keep in mind that Dean only said yes to alt-Michael to save Sam, Jack and the world, in the first place). Dean is the only character either version of Death is willing to share their wisdom with about the Natural Order – presumably because Dean is the only one willing to listen.

The Mark of Cain storyline helped boost Dean permanently out of the kind of rut that characters get into after several seasons. He resolved some of that series-long anger, especially after the Mark was lifted and he met with Amara, Chuck’s equally angry sister. He became somewhat calmer and more stable. He resolved some of his mommy issues after Mary came back. Dean is by no means perfect, but the thing that sets him apart is his willingness to put saving others – whether individuals or the entire world – ahead of his own needs.

Despite the show’s resistance to exploring Dean’s state of (im)mortality post-Mark, the moment Dean takes on the Mark in “First Born” (9.11) is a major watershed point in the show’s mytharc story. Dean can no longer be considered just human and certainly not merely mortal. With the Mark, he could basically outlive the multiverse. With it, even Chuck can’t kill him, because it would release Chuck’s vengeful sister Amara. Without it, Dean still retains its taint enough that he can’t take it on again (or perhaps Chuck fears Dean’s affinity with Amara). So, he’s never reverted to human status since Sam forcibly had the Mark lifted from his brother’s arm at the end of season 10, not fully.

I’m reminded of a discussion Bart Ehrman puts forward in his book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014), regarding how early Christians perceived the divinity of Jesus Christ. During Jesus’ lifetime, of course, his followers believed he was the Messiah, but that still meant he was mortal and human. Shortly after his death, they came to believe he had resurrected as a divine being, a sort of angel. This quickly upgraded to the superangel Son of Man, then God’s own begotten Son.

Early on, the orthodox position varied on when this upgrade occurred, either at his resurrection, his death, his birth, or even his baptism by John the Baptist (when God’s spirit comes down in the form of a dove, in the Gospel of John). Later, there was a controversy between the Arians and what later became the orthodox, Council of Nicea position. The only difference was that the Arians believed Christ had come into being after God but before the Creation of the World, as God’s Son, whereas the post-Nicea mainstream position is now that Christ, God and the Holy Spirit are co-eternal (that means they’ve always existed).

So, there’s a lot for a fictional show like Supernatural to play with inside the Christological canon. A Christ figure in such a fictional story could begin as a human, a mortal, and later become equal to God the Father/Creator, or even replace him. This becomes important in the God Is the Big Bad mytharc that began in the season 14 finale. Chuck could indeed be replaced by a Christological figure who was originally human. That figure does not need to be of supernatural or angelic origin. The most likely human candidate at this point is Dean.

When the Author Insert God Character Is a Little Too On Point

We were introduced to the idea of the SPNverse being a multiverse in season 12. We also learned a few things about the cosmology from seasons 11 to 14. At the beginning of season 11, we met Amara the Darkness, Chuck’s primordial sister. Later, in “The Big Empty” (13.04), we met the Empty Entity, the even-more-primordial god that rules the chaos in which Chuck and Amara had once existed (were born?) and out of which Chuck created the SPN multiverse.

Chuck also told Dean near the end of season 11 in “All in the Family” (11.21) that he was the Firewall Between Light (Chuck) and Dark (Amara). Indeed, Dean had felt a connection with Amara all season 11 and eventually used this to reunite her with Chuck, thus saving the entire SPNverse (the season 11 finale title, “Alpha and Omega” (11.23), is another biblical name for the Second Coming of Christ). The implication was that this connection had come out of the Mark of Cain, the curse that had been used to seal Amara away in her prison. This had then been given to Lucifer (it drove him mad), who then gave it to poor Cain, who then shared it with Dean.

But the show was always a bit vague about what the real connection was between Dean and Amara. We only learned pieces, such as that Amara found him fascinating, the only part of her brother’s creation that interested her prior to her reconciliation with Chuck. We also saw that she either couldn’t absorb Dean’s soul as she could those of other humans, or chose not to because of something she saw in him. We saw that the attraction was mutual and that Chuck was perhaps intensely jealous of it.

This last bit came up again at the end of season 14 in “Moriah” (14.20), when Chuck engineered an elaborate assassination plot … not against Jack who had gone off the rails and become an apparently unkillable Big Bad, but against Dean. It turned out that Chuck could smite Jack quite easily, but he had to get Dean to kill himself by shooting Jack with his weird gun. He could (or would) not kill Dean directly. Once Dean refused to shoot Jack, Chuck was so furious that he smote Jack and immediately set into motion the final apocalypse. But he still didn’t smite Dean.

Chuck then set up another trap when he captured Sam (who had shot him with the same gun and formed a connection between them) in the appropriately titled “The Trap” (15.09). He manipulated Sam, by showing him a dark “future” after Sam and Dean locked him away, into losing hope that Dean would come to the rescue and make things right. Sam then lost his God wound along with his hope/faith and Chuck was free of him.

But then Dean showed up and told Chuck to get lost, to “go back to Earth 2.” Dean told Chuck to go play with his other worlds in the rest of the multiverse, but to leave this one alone. And once again, Chuck backed down rather than confront Dean directly, let alone smite him as he had, say, poor Becky in “Atomic Monsters” (15.04).

We got shown immediately afterward that Chuck had not actually created a primordial timeline that diverged naturally and independently of him, with different choices and events. Instead, there was always a Prime timeline (the one we’ve been watching for 15 seasons), and then there were various storylines and “failed drafts.” After “The Trap,” Chuck then systematically destroyed all of these drafts so that he could focus his malice on his original, the one that still surprised him and gave him “joy.” It seems that Dean inadvertently saved Earth Prime by refusing to give Chuck what he wanted, the way Sam finally had.

I’m not wild about this idea of failed cosmic drafts, to be honest, and the idea of God being a hack writer is a little too accurate an in-show metaphor for the generally poor quality of showrunner storytelling since Jeremy Carver left at the end of season 11. It probably seemed clever in the Writers Room, especially with the current showrunners (who aren’t know for their theological or philosophical subtlety). But the implications are messy and not in a good way. It basically makes the SPNverse linear, with all choices for the characters pretty much laid out for them, aside from the occasional deviation (solely by Dean).

The apparent divergent reality created by Mary’s decision not to say yes to Azazel, for example, turns out to have been just another draft. This implies that far from being an ancient being like his Prime counterpart, alt-Michael wasn’t created until Chuck began that draft, which would only have been less than half a century ago. Is this why Dean was able to lock him away in a Cage inside his own head? Or could Dean do that to the Prime version of Michael? I don’t think the writers even gave it much thought.

Different strokes for different shows

Lately, I’ve been binge-(re)watching Lucifer, in anticipation of season 5 coming out in a few weeks. Though based on another comic from the early 2000s of the same name that was a spinoff of Neil Gaiman’s classic Sandman, Lucifer the show is quite different and its writers have clearly watched Supernatural.

However, this is not a criticism of Lucifer (I happen to quite like the show). It does a cool job of doing its own spin on these ideas. For example, in Supernatural, you have a primordial Trinity (quaternity?) of the Empty Entity, Chuck and Amara (and possibly the Firewall).

In Lucifer, you have a dualistic universe, albeit not one of strict good and evil, very Old Testament. Inspired by the early Ancient Israelite pantheon of Yahweh and his wife the Queen of Heaven (usually identified as Asteroth/Ishtar), the show gives us God, who created humans and tests his angelic children, and Goddess, who was imprisoned in Hell for sending down plagues and disasters on her husband’s creations. However, the universe itself is the creation of their union, so they share it together. And when their son Lucifer finally resolves the conflict between his parents at the end of season two by cutting a hole to a new reality, it is spelled out that Goddess could easily make her own creations there.

Lucifer also has its own version of Cain (a very bad boy, not nearly as tortured and noble as the Supernatural version) and Eve (both more sympathetic and more human than the SPN version, one who came back down to Earth because she got bored with the perfection of Heaven). There is also the demon Mazikeen’s journey to grow and learn about humanity, which is somewhat parallel to that of Lucifer’s brother Amenadiel’s Fall-and-Redemption storyline.

And it has its own version of Christ tropes, though no explicit Christ character has ever been mentioned. Amenadiel’s Naphil child Charlie is just a powerless baby, but he potentially is so dangerous that the demons from Hell try to seize him to be their new lord and there are angels who want to kill him to bring him to Heaven. The demons are only subdued when Lucifer agrees to sacrifice himself by going back to reign in Hell. This is one way for a Devil character to also be a Christ character, though such an act would be completely out of character for the Supernatural version.

Cousin Olivers, Kid Tricks and Mary Sue

Let’s talk about Jack, a character everyone in the show (and many fans) believes will replace Chuck as the new SPNverse God. Jack is a character who was first conceived by Lucifer and a human woman in season 12 in “LOTUS” (12.08). He was born at the end of the season, lost his powers to his father at the end of season 13, died and then regained some of them two-thirds of the way through season 14 (when the alt-Michael-Dean storyline was abruptly and literally immolated in order just to power Jack back up in “Ouroboros” (14.14)), turned EVOL, got killed by Chuck anyway at the end of season 14, was brought back by Death over halfway through season 15 (at the end of “The Gamblers” (15.11)) as some sort of secret weapon against Chuck, and now is … kinda there, kinda being morally problematical as he’s always been.

Jack is an amalgam of three character types – Cousin Oliver/Scrappy Doo, Gary Stu (Chosen One variety) and Superbaby (aged up via the Kid Trick). Cousin Oliver was a cute little kid introduced in the final season of The Brady Bunch (1969-74) in an attempt to revitalized the franchise. Since this was the last season, you can guess how successful that was. It wasn’t especially a problem that Cousin Oliver was an adorable moppet so much as that he was also a character who made everything in the show about him in what turned out to be a literary death spiral. Every situation and every character, including the Bradys whom the show’s audience had become invested in, now revolved around this brand-new character. It didn’t help that Oliver was annoying and bland in equal measure.

Then there was Scrappy-Doo. Scrappy-Doo was introduced into the Scooby-Doo franchise in 1979, again to revitalize the franchise and prevent its imminent cancellation. This was successful, at least initially, but the producers then restructured the series around Scrappy, Scooby and Shaggy, and got rid of Fred, Daphne and Velma entirely for a while. Well, this didn’t go over well with the fans and Scrappy was quietly ditched from the regular series by the end of the 80s. Though he did pop up in various incarnations from time to time after that, they were mostly parodic. In 1998, the website Jump the Shark got a huge natural promotional boost after creating a poll involving Scrappy. So, to a large extent, you can thank Scrappy for making the term “jump the shark” popular because a lot of fans came to believe his introduction was Scooby-Doo‘s jump-the-shark moment.

Why was Scrappy so unpopular? Well, aside from his having the entire series restructured around him, he was a really abrasive and unlikeable character. Cocky and reckless, he rushed into every situation and got everyone into a lot of trouble. Worse, he was convinced he was a mighty intellect and tended to look down on the rest of the Scooby Gang, while coming off dumb as a box of hair. He was an anti-Scooby-Doo and that really wasn’t what the audience wanted.

As you can see, both of these characters had major aspects of the Gary Stu (the male version of the Mary Sue). They were Author Inserts into the story, rather than existing organically in it. The story immediately became all about them, including iconic and beloved characters whom the audience had more history with and liked a lot more. These iconic characters, in some cases, were shoved completely out of the narrative. Cousin Oliver and Scrappy-Doo were also presented as adorkable and quirky, but as with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, those two characteristics can come off as artificial if overdone. And boy, were they overdone with Cousin Oliver and Scrappy.

Then you’ve got the Superbaby and the Kid Trick. The Superbaby is a Mary Sue-ish type of character that is a superpowered child. These characters were really popular in science fiction (both print and on screen) in the 1970s and 1980s for some reason, along with bratty tomboys (Don’t get me started on that trope). One of the most famous more-recent examples is Isabelle Tyler from USA Network show The 4400 (2004-7). The premise of this show was that 4400 people had been mysteriously kidnapped from various times and places in the previous seven decades or so, and brought back in 2004 with various superpowers. Sort of like Lost, which came out in the same year.

Isabelle spends the first two seasons as a literal superbaby who is born to interracial couple (and main 4400 characters) Lily and Richard Tyler at the end of season one. Even in the womb, Isabelle is immensely and chaotically powerful, and manipulates her own parents (sound familiar?). She continues to be a force for chaotic good (?) through season two.

The actress who played Lily decided to leave after season two, so at the beginning of season three, Isabelle drains her mother of her life force (making Lily age and die in a matter of a few days). She then becomes, in appearance and ability to speak and walk, etc., a late adolescent, though still only about two in chronological and emotional age.

This is a common tactic in soap operas. Two characters will have a baby. The baby (through early childhood) will be involved in various child-in-peril stories. Then one day, the child will go upstairs as a kid and come down as an adolescent a few episodes later, ready for a bunch of teen-from-Hell storylines.

This is known as the Kid Trick (coined by Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his overview of the horror genre). And I really hate it. It’s lazy. And it’s a cheap way of (re)introducing a brand-new character as an annoying trope, while pretending an investment and emotional connection the audience doesn’t really have with the character because the audience didn’t actually spend all those years watching this character grow up.

Played by Megalyn Echikunwoke (who also played Dean’s first girlfriend in season 1’s “Route 666” (1.13) shortly before joining the show), Isabelle proceeds to seduce another main 4400 character, Shawn Farrell, in a matching green bra-and-panty set, and basically goes on a Mary Sue rampage. She has TK, superstrength, superintelligence, invulnerability, and zero conscience or impulse control. Eventually, after she is captured and loses her powers, her father manages to regress her to a baby and grow her back up with a conscience (again, sound familiar?). Isabelle then recovers her powers, but discovers the evil future people who had basically engineered her and kidnapped the 4400 have put a kill switch inside her. She later apparently dies from this in the process of a heroic rescue.

Isabelle is an unfortunate mixed bag (and the really sad part is that there weren’t a whole lot of major WOC characters at the time). On the one hand, Baby!Isabelle was actually pretty popular with the fandom during the first two seasons and she had a major point in the story. This was, after all, a show where one of the most popular, wisest and “oldest” of the characters, Maia Rutledge, was also a little girl. Conchita Campbell’s endearing performance helped, sure, but Maia was both powerful and helpless in equal measure, creating an interesting paradox and emotional accessibility with the character. So, the fandom was hardly averse to major child characters.

Also, Isabelle acted as a visible metaphor and motivation for Richard and Lily’s love and rebellion against the authorities trying to control them. Rather less impressively, she was a major deus ex machina for the writers to use, but as she was a baby, she was more of a macguffin than a character. Thus, despite things like trees literally bending toward her as her mother was driven to the hospital in labor, Baby!Isabelle didn’t become a Mary Sue that shoved all of the other characters off the stage.

Unfortunately, the executive producers found working with the babies playing Isabelle’s character logistically difficult and when Laura Allen (Lily) left, they got the “bright” idea of doing the Kid Trick with Isabelle. That’s when she turned into a story-wrecking monster. Adult!Isabelle was a blatant Mary Sue who sucked all the life out of everyone else’s storylines and irritated many fans, and I can’t say I ever found Echikunwoke’s performance terribly compelling.

The writers also waffled a lot, trying to sell this idea that Isabelle was still just an innocent baby in a hot young woman’s bod whom we were supposed to feel sorry for, while having her do increasingly terrible and irredeemable things. For example, having her hook up with Shawn (himself an adolescent) made him look skeevy. Then later, when he tried to end it and she got threatening, the relationship turned downright rapey. Good times. The attempted back-to-a-baby reboot didn’t help and just made her dad (a very decent guy up to that point) look sketchy, too.

All of these characters are generally unpopular with audiences for a reason. All of them get introduced by incompetent writers and producers because of their alleged appeal to “new audiences” (translation: older teens), often in the twilight years of an older, but very popular, show. So, it perhaps is not a surprise that the current showrunners of Supernatural thought bringing in Jack and having him take over the narrative would be a brilliant idea, even though it never has been before.

We Need To Talk About the Antichrist

Jack is, of course, an Antichrist figure (being Lucifer’s son). Though in his case, he’s Antichrist 2.0 after Jesse in season 5, or even Antichrist 3.0, since Sam sort of had that role in earlier seasons.

In the first two seasons, the mytharc involved Sam being part of a generation of kids whose psychic powers emerged at the age of 22. All of them had been visited in their nurseries at the age of six months by a powerful demon, Azazel, who bled into their mouths exactly ten years after making a deal with one of their parents (as we found out in season 4’s “In the Beginning” (4.03)). This connection unlocked various powers in them 21 1/2 years later. Over the next two years, they were winnowed down to two – Sam and a guy named Jake. Jake killed Sam at the end of “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 1” (2.21), Dean made a deal with a CRD to bring Sam back from the dead in the very next episode, and then Sam killed Jake while Jake was opening a gate to Hell. That left only one.

In season 3, Sam acquired a demon mistress (Ruby, of course), who tempted him with the possibility of saving his brother from Hell (it didn’t work because she wasn’t on the level) and got him addicted to demon blood between seasons 3 and 4. At the end of season 4, in “Lucifer Rising” (4.23), Sam found Ruby had manipulated him into releasing Lucifer, which was pretty much the opposite of what he thought he was doing (though that took a great deal of self-delusion). In season 5, he discovered that he and his brother were the vessels of two archangel brothers, Lucifer and Michael respectively, and that they were destined to kill each other.

Sam’s Antichrist storyline effectively ended at the end of season 5, when he jumped into a giant plothole, and took Lucifer and Michael with him. But the writers kept going with Sam Done Come Back Wrong plots, which actually made Sam more human, not less, until the middle of season 9. And then they turned him really quite dark and unpleasant. I mean, he was already heading that way in season 8, but in the second half of season 9, he no longer had any supernaturally flavored excuse. He just seemed … jealous … that Dean now had something magically special about him, even though it was an ancient and truly vicious curse.

He spent season 10, of course, trying to exorcise Dean of the Mark and then trying to make up for his own cosmic stupidity in season 11. After that, the writers starting promoting Leader!Sam for some reason and now he’s All About Jack. He did have the bullet that connected him to Chuck for the first half of season 15, but that turned out to be a red herring, not a version of the Mark of Cain.

In a curious callback to the days when Sam was worried Dean would reject him for having demon blood, Sam nearly ended the world in season 15. He lost faith that Dean would be able to rescue him or stop Chuck without causing the fake future Chuck showed him.in which everything (without Chuck’s divine light) went dark and monstrous, including Sam and Dean themselves.

Sam does play a major role in the development of the Family Business philosophy. He is Dean’s first disciple, his first sounding board for it. He is the one who reminds Dean to be more compassionate, who grounds Dean in the human world. He is much more socially savvy than Dean. He is the one who shows that the line between Human and Monster can be blurry, that the world is gray, not black and white.

But Sam’s not very good at practicing what he preaches. His biggest motivation for Hunting on the show is revenge, not protecting others. Sam’s concerns about tolerance toward monsters are all tied up in his concerns about being one. If the moral dilemma doesn’t directly involve his own issues in some way, Sam pretty much doesn’t care. He lacks Dean’s visceral emotional attachment to their job, and both the victims and predators in it.

Probably due to his deprived upbringing and loss of his mother as an infant, Sam is emotionally distant and detached from others, with the sole exception of his brother Dean. His emotional connection to Dean is very immature. He is overly needy and jealous of Dean’s exclusive attention, while simultaneously pushing his brother away, often in extremely hurtful ways. He even goes so far as to psychological project his own dependency on Dean, who actually tends to flourish without Sam. But Sam does not flourish without Dean.

Sam is no longer an Antichrist figure. But he’s no Jesus, either.

Then there’s Antichrist 2.0. In season 5’s “I Believe the Children Are Our Future” (5.06), Jesse was a kid who had been adopted out after his mother had been possessed by a demon that used her body to engage in human sacrifice and many other horrible acts. These acts, rather vaguely described, resulted in a virgin birth of a super-demonic creature known as a cambion (usually the offspring of a demon and an angel, like Genesis in Preacher). Even with this backstory, Jesse was pretty overpowered. It was said that he could wish every angel in Heaven out of existence with a single thought, even though his sphere of actual influence seemed to be only a few miles wide.

In fact, this is also a problem both for Jack and for Genesis in Preacher. Now, I’m not just saying that they have too many powers for the story and that they weigh it down, though they do. I also mean that they make no sense from a folkloric or mythological point of view.

What Ennis and Dabb both seem to have missed is that in mythology and folklore, even (non-universal) gods have limits and these limits have logical reasons behind them. But inherent sexism appears to have made these writers blind to this logic.

For example, Achilles, one of the mightiest warriors in Greek mythology, is fated to be greater than his own father, Peleus. In fact, Zeus, rather than seduce Achilles’ mother Thetis, instead got her rather forcibly married off to a mortal because of a prophecy that her offspring would be greater than their fathers.

This makes a lot more sense if you know that rather than always being a lowly sea nymph as she is described in Homer, Thetis appears in at least one Archaic era fragment as an all-powerful demiurge (creator) goddess. Thus, it makes sense that her son would be more powerful than his father because of the power and divinity of his mother. It just is more obvious when the mother is mortal and the father divine, as in the case of Heracles. Semi-divine characters were more powerful than their human parent, relatives or neighbors, but they were not even as powerful as their divine parent and certainly couldn’t overthrow that parent. Even a fully divine child like Zeus needed help from his mother Rhea and siblings to overthrow their father, Kronos.

In polytheism, as gods are spawned by primordial gods and become more numerous, they are always individually less powerful than the primordial forces from which they spring. The older the god or goddess, the more powerful they are. The younger gods need tricks, spells, magical weapons, and allies to defeat their parents. You can see these systems as pantheistic in the sense that the primordial god represents the powerful, but relatively mindless and amoral, universe that the younger gods manipulate and learn to control.

So, it makes no sense for Jesse to be so much more powerful than both his human mother and his demon “father.” Even with the blood sacrifices the possessing demon engages in, those shouldn’t give him power greater than Heaven itself. Jesse is just a pawn – a powerful one, but still a pawn, not a player. And he is part of Lucifer’s plan. Lucifer isn’t going to make him so powerful as to be unruly.

Then there are Genesis and Jack. Genesis in Preacher is the offspring of an angel and a demon. Fine, but that shouldn’t make it more powerful than God. God created both the angel and the demon, and a whole lot more besides. So, where does Genesis’ power come from? It can’t come from nowhere. That makes no sense and violates the story’s rules.

Similarly, Jack is the offspring of an archangel and a mortal human. Fine, but by mythological standards, that shouldn’t make him even as powerful as an archangel, let alone more so. Yeah, the show fudged it a bit by depowering Lucifer and having Jack go up against an “alternate” version of Michael, but Jack shouldn’t even be that powerful. He certainly shouldn’t be as powerful as Chuck, no matter how many angel hearts he eats. Chuck is exponentially more powerful even than his archangels. That’s likely why Jack’s sparkly superpowers make no sense and look so fake.

Obviously inspired by the somewhat-more-interesting (but equally improbable) Kid Antichrist in the book Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (since turned into a successful miniseries), Jesse turned out not to be a very exciting character. Even within the episode, the writers (one of them current showrunner Andrew Dabb) very quickly wrote themselves into a corner. They therefore had Jesse wish himself into a poster of Australia, never to be seen or heard from again. Alas, it seems Dabb wanted to give this character type another go.

So, we got Jack.

The Problem with Jack

The biggest problem with Jack derives from the above character types (or, more accurately, writing flaws). One could say it’s an inherent problem in them – that is, there’s no actual room in the story for him. Sure, Alex Calvert has chemistry with Padalecki, Ackles and Collins, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. And yes, he’s garnered a fanbase for the character. But that doesn’t actually create room for Jack in the storyline, especially not as a protagonist and member of Team Free Will.

He sucks the energy out of storylines meant for Sam, Dean and certainly for Castiel (Castiel practically doesn’t have a personality, anymore, let alone a positive one, now that he’s All About Jack). That’s what makes him a Cousin Oliver or Scrappy Doo. TFW spends far more time fighting over what to do about Jack (with everybody ganging up on Dean for expressing doubts that turn out to be totally prophetic) than fighting Big Bads.

Rather than opening up the SPNverse for new storylines with Sam and Dean (as Castiel did in his dramatic entrance at the beginning of season four in “Lazarus Rising” (4.01), Jack shoves Sam and Dean right out of their own story. And of course the audience is going to resent that. They didn’t sign on for this 15-season ride (at whatever point they started and began catching up) for a character that shows up 83% into the story. That’s a ludicrous expectation and yet, that’s exactly what the current showrunners and writers expect from us.

To make matters worse, as the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have increased awareness of the lack of diverse representation in Hollywood, the show finds itself in an awkward position where any space for women and/or People of Color or LGBT people in the story has been taken up by a bland, young white boy who pretty much embodies Entitlement.

He has, as Ijeoma Oluo puts it in her essay on Medium, “The Anger of the White Male Lie,” “promise,” simply due to what he is – a white guy. The current writers try to dress this “promise” up as stemming from his being the son of the Devil (an alleged heritage he supposedly has to struggle to keep down). They present him as being some kind of divine royalty as the grandson of God, even though every single being in the SPNverse aside from Chuck, Amara and the Empty (with the possible exception of Death) is a child of one of Chuck’s creations.

Chuck doesn’t have children. Lucifer is simply his creation and he’s not even the first one. So, really, what the “promise” ends up being, in its subtext, is Jack as a privileged young white man and the projected next generation of the show (whether or not a spinoff ever occurs) because the current writers have completely missed why Sam and Dean were attractive to the audience in the first place.

Sam and Dean, despite their cosmically exalted status later on (and being white men), grow up blue collar and poor, very low on the totem pole of human society. They respond to that in extremely different ways (because that generates more drama). Sam becomes a social-climbing snob who seeks status and an escape from his impoverished Hunter’s background via an Ivy League education and going into law, hobnobbing with equally snobby (and generally white) people. Dean responds by essentially dropping out of “respectable” society and becoming a protector of the innocent, of the down and out, which includes a lot of women, PoCs and LGBT folk. Not only is he contemptuous of human elites, but of monster elites as well (only one of many reasons why “Bloodlines” tanked so hard as a backdoor pilot).

The point here is that Jack would be a bleak and disastrous choice for the new God and he’s not even a little bit a Christ figure. He’s certainly perfect as an Antichrist figure – someone who appears to be Christological, a glittering golden boy, but is the opposite of Christ – but there is nothing in his journey that makes him look like Christ.

One could argue that of course he’s an Antichrist, since he is the son of Lucifer, but the writers could have moved away from that if they’d written his father as a more sympathetic and self-sacrificial character (like, say, on the show Lucifer). They could have also done it by having Jack make better choices, more Christ-like choices. Christ’s divinity is revealed by actions, not by parentage, after all.

But Jack’s identity is all about his parentage, his privilege and his inherited power, which fluctuates, Gary Stu-like, according to the needs of the plot and whatever corner the writers have written themselves into this week. As such, it doesn’t really have anything meaningful to say about what kind of person he is or chooses to be. Not the way, say, Sam responds to his demon blood heritage or Dean to the Mark of Cain, or either one to their shared status as archangel vessels on opposite sides of the biggest conflict in the SPNverse. His powers are pretty and shiny, but they don’t illuminate his character. They are all bombastic sound, no light, so they make him look empty.

He is a powerful baby, lacking wisdom and the ability to acquire it easily. Gullible. Easily bamboozled. Some have argued that this is because he’s still just a child, but that’s actually a disqualifier for a Christological figure. Sure, you have stories of the infant Christ in the mainstream Gospels, and you have stories of an arrogant child Jesus throwing his divine weight, Trickster-like, around in apocryphal Gnostic gospels like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

But the main focus on Christ, where you get his message and his mission, is after he has grown into a mature man in his thirties, which was practically middle-aged two thousand years ago. The adult Jesus is wise and smart. His enemies are constantly trying to outwit him and he’s always one step ahead of them. This most emphatically is not Jack.

Whenever he has power, Jack grossly abuses it, in anger and pride. He has a very shallow moral learning curve and most of it involves trying (and failing) to be more like Dean. He is arrogant and treats others like puppets. He does terrible things, feels a little bad about it, then gets let off the hook. Everything (and I mean everything) is handed to him, completely in contrast to the Wayward Sisters or, for that matter, Sam and Dean, who grew up in poverty and misery, and have had to fight for every bit of peace, even to get a home.

The future beyond Supernatural

Now one could argue that would-be spinoffs like Ghostfacers and Wayward Sisters are similar in trying to shove Sam and Dean out of the picture. However, the characters and storylines in these have been around a lot longer than Jack. The Ghostfacers first showed up as the Hell Hounds in season 1’s “Hell House” (1.17) and reappeared in season 3’s “Ghostfacers!” (3.13). Claire first showed up in season 4 and Jody in season 5 in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (5.15), which was only a third of the way through the show. Donna first showed up halfway through season 9 in “The Purge” (9.13), Alex in “Alex Annie Alexis Ann” (9.19). Yeah, Patience and Kaia were new, but the general group and premise definitely were not. And they had plenty of history with Sam and Dean. A story with them was, by its very nature, a continuation of Sam and Dean’s story, a sequel, even if neither ever appeared in it.

You all know I’m no fan of Kaia, either the “Prime” version or the Monster World version. But her redemption arc shows more Christological content than Jack’s. After being too afraid at first to help find Mary, Kaia volunteers to help the Brothers and Jack in “The Bad Place” (13.09). Later, after that goes disastrously wrong, she helps the Wayward Sisters find Sam and Dean in her nightmare place (Monster World) and sacrifices herself to save Claire, a girl she only just met (“Wayward Sisters” (13.10)). Motivated by her Prime version’s sacrifice, Dark!Kaia saves her life, then gets her rescued by Sam and Dean (coming full circle in that story). Dark!Kaia then decides to atone for her selfishness by staying with her own, imperfect world, as Chuck destroys it (“Galaxy Brain” (15.12)). This is why Kaia’s relief when Dean shows up at the last minute and hugs her feels earned. She had to work for it.

But Jack never has to work for anything. He is a crown prince character, a child of ultimate privilege. The industry, and even the nature of specfic storytelling, has changed a great deal in the 15 seasons Supernatural has been on. It doesn’t seem right for Sam and Dean, the ultimate underdogs, to hand off the baton to a privileged character like Jack and see him become their new God. I sure hope that’s not where the show is going with his storyline.


The Kripke Years

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

Season 5

The Gamble Years

Season 6 (with Kripke)

Season 7

The Carver Years

Season 8

Season 9

Season 10

Season 11

The Dabb Years

Season 12

Season 13

Season 14

Season 15


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Jesus in “Supernatural”: Part 1


We need your help!

You can still find my reviews here of North Carolina ghost story books, and notes about my folklore research on Patreon. Contribute monthly via Patreon (which includes perks), make a one-time donation through Paypal, or buy us a coffee. As we slide deeper into the Coronavirus outbreak, I will try to catch up on my backlog of retro recaps, starting with “The Purge” (9.13), since it’s been announced that 15.13 will be the last episode aired “for a while.” The show is supposed to finish up this fall, as the only original programming on the CW before January. Considering the current situation, I rather doubt it will come back that early, but we’ll see. They did put out a poster for the final episodes and include the show in a new promo. So, there’s that.

If you’re enjoying these articles and reviews, any contributions are welcome. Even in a pandemic, the kitties still gotta eat.

My collected recaps and reviews of season one, which first appeared on Innsmouth Free Press, are up (with a few extras) on Kindle. The Kindle version is available through Amazon. The print version is also up. If you buy the print version, you get a Kindle copy thrown in for free. I also get paid if you get it on Kindle Unlimited (for free), read the Kindle version, or lend it to a friend via the Kindle Owners Lending Library. Reviews also help with sales. Just FYI.

Scroll down to find links to all of my recaps and reviews of all seasons up to this point.

This article originally appeared as part of my Gods and Monsters column on the Innsmouth Free Press site in 2014, right after the end of season 9. Alas, we had a database crash on the site about a year ago and the column went down with the ship. Since then, I’ve had a bunch of people make two requests – that I repost the original article and that I update it. Here is the original article. The update for seasons 10-15 will go up next week as Part 2.

spoilers but no proselytizing ahoy

The most common trope out there
A perennial question among fans of the show, Supernatural, is “Where is Jesus in all of this?” The question makes sense, because this has always been at its heart a show about the Christian Apocalypse. As this fan-made video from 2007 shows, even in season one, the religious imagery was heavy-duty:

Supernatural Music Video – “Saving Grace” by sweetasthepunch64. Song by Tom Petty.

As the central figure in the most important story of Christianity, Jesus Christ is one of the most common character tropes in Western literature, whether a writer is Christian or not. He is also remarkably prevalent in genre film and television, particularly of the dark fantasy variety.

Here is a short list of the more recent Christ figures in genre TV and movies: Alice in Resident Evil, Leeloo in The Fifth Element, John Constantine in Constantine, Captain Jack in Torchwood, Eleanor in the remake of Haunting of Hill House, Brayker in Demon Knight, Batman in The Dark Knight, Clark Kent at the end of season nine in Smallville and in the latest version of Superman, as well as Robocop.

Superman Returns (2006)

We also often see “split” versions of Christ in genre film and television, where two characters in an obvious Passion story represent different aspects (or even only the divine or human aspects) of a Christ figure, such as Kyle Reese and his son John Connor in The Terminator (They form a trinity with John’s mother, Sarah), and the Archangel Michael and Charlie’s unnamed baby in Legion. Since Legion is being turned into a TV show on Syfy, Dominion, this ought to be interesting. Probably bad but still interesting.

[Update: It was and unfortunately, they spent a ridiculous amount of time dancing around the issue with the grown-up version of Charlie’s baby, who is more of a King Arthur or King David figure than a Christ figure, while portraying the Archangel Michael as a rather creepy and slutty father figure.]

Who is Jesus?
The Nicene Creed and the roughly contemporaneous Apostles’ Creed sum up the basic elements of Christ’s importance to Christians and Christ’s story (as agreed on by almost all Christians), respectively:

The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen.

Here, we have all the basic Christological elements of the story: Christ is God’s son. This essentially means he is not a created being like angels or humans, but begotten (of the same substance as God). He, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit (a being much like the Ghost in the Machine that animates us all) make up the Trinity. Christians believe that the Trinity is not three Gods in one so much as three aspects of the One God. As such, you see God the Father in the role of the demiurge, the original, distant creator; God the Son as the part that interacts with us and has a personal relationship with us; and God the Holy Spirit as the part that is that breath through the universe that inspires us to the divine and is responsible for all those mysterious ways that puzzle us. Even the “ghost in the machine.” Think of it as the part that inhabits us.

Christ’s story on earth (and elsewhere) is also clear: He is born of a virgin via the Holy Spirit; he is crucified; he dies and is buried for three days, in which time he goes to Hell (and according to medieval stories, he spends that time harrowing Hell of worthy pagan ancients); he then is resurrected, appears back on earth for 40 days, and then goes back to Heaven (known as the Ascension). After this, he becomes a great cosmic leader and judge, though this is stated to happen in the future (during and after the Apocalypse).

The story of Jesus
Note that of all these elements, the one most easily dropped in speculative fiction is the Virgin Birth part. In fact, it can be used as a way to signal an Antichrist figure, instead. So, for example, Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels is born from a virgin birth, but turns out to be a false messiah and Antichrist who nearly destroys the Jedi Order. But his twin children Luke and Leia, who are born of Anakin’s illicit union with Padmé Amidala, become true saviors leading the Rebellion against the Empire a generation later. This is probably because the Virgin Birth is a sign or wonder intended to herald the holy nature of Jesus, rather than a concrete aspect with which humans can identify. It also need not be directly tied to his divinity, since Muslims believe in the Virgin Birth and revere Mary, but they perceive it as a sign of Jesus being a Prophet rather than the Son of God.

Nor is it necessary for Christ to be a virgin, or even celibate, himself. Mainstream Christians generally believe this quite firmly, but the biblical Christ doesn’t bring it up and interacts as a friend and mentor to many women in the New Testament. Also, in at least one surviving Gnostic gospel, Christ appears to have a wife in the story. Perhaps the main reason no one wants to believe Christ was married or had children is because Christ having human descendants would cut into the universality of his message. Christ can’t be paterfamilias to the world if he is paterfamilias of his own human family.

Christ Healing a Bleeding Woman. Fresco from the Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter (4th century CE)

Similarly, while some Christians really focus on the miracles part of Christ’s ministry, Jesus himself seemed very ambivalent about them. He states in the Gospels that they are mainly a way to get people’s attention so that they will listen to his message, though his performance of them often stems from his compassion for someone’s plight (raising Lazarus, for example) or due to the person’s faith (like the bleeding woman lost in the crowd who touches the hem of his robe to be cured, a story that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels).

This is largely because first-century Palestine, like the rest of the Mediterranean, was full of miracle workers and Christ wanted to stand out. Probably his most common miracle was the simple exorcism, since people of the time believed most illnesses, especially mental illness, came from demons. But also, he felt his unique message was the most important part of his time on earth. Even the greatest and most potent miracle of all – his resurrection – is a symbol of the undying strength of his message of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

This message is why Christ is one of the few religious leaders (like Buddha or Gandhi) who appeal even to those not in their religion – and it is unique. The idea that no matter who you were, how low you were, whatever you had done, you could find redemption and a close, personal relationship with a universal God who loved you, was a compelling message in his time and still is.

Paradoxically, this is also why Christians, as a group and as individuals, are so often subject to criticism and ridicule. If your religion appeals to the misfits of the world, it makes sense that you’re going to have a lot of oddballs. It doesn’t help that the Establishment has been trying (with mixed success) to co-opt Christ’s unique message since at least the fourth century CE, so expect a lot of the usual bureaucratic hypocrisy since then. Many people “do” Christianity just because that’s the way they were raised or as a social thing.

Yet, the vigor of the message is evergreen and never more so than in speculative fiction. The scrappy underdog (or is that underGod?) storyline of Christ’s original time on earth with his little band of misfits (as well as their ultimate victory out of the worst defeat) really appeals, regardless of your fundamental belief system – hence the frequent use of the trope even by agnostics and atheists.

Jesus as human and as monster
Modern popular myth has greatly simplified the profusion of metaphors for Christ. This is largely due to the brutal theological debates of the Reformation, in which both Catholics and Protestants decried each other as heretics. But you would be really surprised at what’s out there in terms of how Jesus is perceived. That blonde, bearded, blue-eyed, passive hippy dude is very recent and very blah compared to the way he’s been portrayed over the years (One fourth century fresco from Rome, shown above, for example, portrays Jesus as swarthy, short-haired and clean-shaven). The “Christ is my cosmic codependent BFF” image is popular and shallow, but it is not realistic, either in an historical or a theological sense. And it’s boring in a literary sense, too.

There is, for example, the ur-text Christ of the Book of Revelation. He is a terrifying monster-killer who directs angels to scourge the Earth to the rock and bone. Also, he is shockingly proactive in that mission, not in any way standing back while letting the angels do all the dirty work. Probably the scariest image is of his riding before his army with a sword coming out of his mouth from Revelation 19:15. Unsurprisingly, this was a popular image during the Crusades. When the Crusaders were winning, they saw Christ smiling upon their bloodletting. When the Muslims were winning, the Crusaders perceived the Muslims as nothing but God’s instruments on earth to punish Christian wickedness and purify them for Paradise. Either way, the Crusaders’ view of Christ was pretty cruel.

The Holy Trinity, by Marcus Andello, 1542

Then there is the visual representation of the Trinity as a three-faced Christ figure. This Wikimedia collection erroneously states that this creepy visual metaphor dates to the 16th century, but it’s a lot older than that, going back at least to the 12th century in Western Christian art. Pope Urban VIII eventually condemned it as heretical in 1628 (the painting at the top of this article is from the Netherlandish School, c.1500).

In fact, the idea of a triple-faced (and triple-natured) God is ancient and pervasive in Indo-European religions, appearing at the top of pantheons ranging from Ancient Celtic to Hindu. One of the oldest and most universal religious symbols in Indo-European mythology is that of the triple-faced supreme god. The number three is a high-level example of Indo-European religious numerology.

There are even Medieval representations of Christ as a mermaid and such, as you can find in a book called The Monstrous Middle Ages. A book called Saracens, Demons and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art also discusses things like headless monsters with faces in their chests and demons with monster faces in their joints and crotches. The monsters were also anthropophages – cannibals. Medieval art was highly inventive in ways that modern horror just won’t do. Part of that might be due to the reflexive racism that pervades figures like Krampus and Zwarte Piet.

Speaking of Medieval and Renaissance art, there was also an ongoing lively iconographic debate up until the Reformation about how to show Christ’s humanity. It was critical to pre-Modern Christians that Christ be accessible as a human being, as well as a representation of the Divine. Christ is the part of the Trinity that interacts with us directly, the part of God that we feel is watching over us and understands us. You can’t relate to a paragon of virtue or a plaster saint.

The Franciscans were especially keen to explore this aspect of Christ and Renaissance artists generally did so by portraying Christ naked. With an erection. I’m not kidding. This was especially common with the Christ child. He might be portrayed lying alone and naked, smiling and pointing at his own genitals, or with his mother holding him and touching his genitals. Needless to say (since we come from the same later tradition), post-Renaissance people found the idea of Christ having sexuality disturbing and either blacked out or painted clothing over Christ’s nethers.

Also in question is Christ’s mental health. In a book published in 1922, The Psychic Health of Jesus, Walter Ernest Bundy observes:

The average Christian believer who looks to Jesus as the one and absolute religious example and leader, and the writer gladly and wholeheartedly confesses himself to this belief, will dismiss the question of Jesus’ psychic health with little ceremony and less thought as positively preposterous and will immediately consign those who have passed a pathographic judgment against Jesus to the very institution for the mentally morbid whither, were he living today, they would have Jesus directed for confinement and care.

Christ is a psychologically difficult figure with whom to grapple, a Trickster figure who challenges us to reconsider how we relate to each other and the rest of the world. But if he were living today, he’d also come off as pretty strange.

Christ as a literary figure
For a literary figure to be truly a part of the Christ trope, he or she must follow certain characteristics – which, contrary to the Blue-Eyed Jesus crowd’s way of thinking, involve neither gender nor race (nor even species, for that matter).

Promotional poster for Syfy series Dominion

First of all, the character must be a Savior. Christ’s primary mission involved saving the world. Many characters in Western literature are saviors of some type or another precisely because of the strong influence of Christ as a heroic model. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is closely modeled on the Christ story, though Campbell claimed more universality for it than that. Many characters that are otherwise not particularly Christ-like (such as Harry Potter or Emma Swan in Once Upon a Time) have strong Christ vibes because they are the chosen Savior characters in the story.

Second, a character must be a Redeemer. Christ’s way of saving the world was to redeem it of its sins. This is an especially powerful aspect of the Christ story that marks a clear divide between before Christ’s life and after. Before, there was no happy afterlife for most people and much suffering for those in this life who weren’t in the top one percent of society. Afterward, anyone, even the lowest slave, had hope.

Remember that Jesus was born and preached in a subjugated province of an empire where a high percentage of the population was enslaved and most of the free poor lived in miserable circumstances little better than slavery. Redemption was a compelling message, which is why Eastern mystery cults like early Christianity were popular in the first place.

The flip side of this aspect of Christ as Redeemer is Christ the Judge, who will separate the sheep from the goats at the Day of Judgement. But a lot of people like to apply that only to other people. They see themselves as hanging out with Christ in Paradise after that day has come and gone, while all their enemies go into the fire.

Third, a Christ character must be a Scapegoat. The way Christ redeemed the world was by taking its sins on his own shoulders and taking responsibility for them. This is a combination of a sacrificial lamb with that of the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:10. The community’s sins were placed on the head of a goat, which was then driven out into the desert to die. In the Passion story (which originally took place over Passover, a festival commemorating another time God saved his chosen people), Christ died for the world’s sins in the most painful and humiliating way possible. This aspect of the Christ story is strongly evoked by the moving ending of The Dark Knight:

[Batman is] the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs right now. So, we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.

Fourth, a Christ character must be a Revolutionary. A lot of Christians like to ignore this part of Jesus, but he was quite the subversive, what with clearing out the Temple marketplace with a whip, interfering in the proper stoning of adulteresses, healing lepers on the Sabbath, mixing up new wine out of water for weddings, showing kindness to Gentiles, and hanging out with prostitutes and moneychangers. His actions and parables were not comforting platitudes but challenges to people’s complacency, indifference and lazy thinking. Christ was (and is) not a comfortable person to engage. A literary Christ figure shouldn’t be, either.

Fifth, a Christ character must be a Teacher. Christ did not simply come to earth to die for humanity, but also to teach humanity how to be better – kinder, more humble, more loving, more just. He did so both by example and by direct advice. As such, Christ also functions in a literary story as its moral center, even when his revolutionary/subversive aspect makes the other characters uncomfortable, as in W.E.B. Dubois’ biting short story “Jesus Christ in Texas.”

Sixth, a Christ character is a Healer, which involves to a great extent being an exorcist (and even slayer, when he is conflated with the Archangel Michael) of demons, due to the strong belief at the time that much physical, and all mental, illness derived from demonic possession. Note that Christ himself used these miracles to teach people and make them receptive to his message, but stated that the message was far more important. People tended to focus on the miracles (which got them what they thought they actually wanted), anyway. Because we humans are like that.

Christ exorcising Legion into a herd of pigs, probably from a series in the
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna Italy, c.500-520 CE

Who and What is Jesus in the SPNverse?
The show has been very cagey about the person of Jesus in the SPNverse. Monsters, like the pagan gods in “A Very Supernatural Christmas” and Eve the mother of monsters, speak contemptuously of him as an upstart and legend in his own mind.

But underneath the studied contempt is a bitter acknowledgement that “this Jesus character” was a major game-changer who tipped the balance permanently in favor of humans. There were Hunters who predated Christ, but Christ is the one who put humans at the apex of earth’s hierarchy of human-like creatures, even more than Prometheus, a pagan god who gave humans fire (and a chance), and was punished for it.

We also see Crucifixion artifacts like the Spear of Destiny (which Dean discovers in the archives of the Men of Letters), as well as regularly used Christ-related objects like the rosary and holy water, that indicate Christ made his ultimate sacrifice – and that it was magically powerful – in the SPNverse. This is echoed in the explosiveness of Dean’s resurrection site (the best candidate to this point for a Christ figure on the show). Christ alters the Natural Order. So does Dean. One could argue that season four premiere “Lazarus Rising” marks a major watershed between BC (Before Castiel) and AD (Anno Dean) in the series.

In addition, the show employs Liturgical colors. In “Goodbye Stranger,” for example, Naomi programs Castiel into a Judas to assassinate Dean. During this scene, as Castiel resists, the normally pure-white light of her office windows is purple shading down to red. Purple is the color of Lent; red is the color of Easter Week. And this is also one of several scenes in the show in which Dean’s unconditional love expressed to someone who is killing him breaks the spell over them.

The writer is dead; long live the trope
There is a common postmodern literary theory out there called “The death of the writer.” It basically means that what the writer intended is not always what you end up with. What the reader thinks of what you wrote is also important.

In Supernatural, creator Eric Kripke has said straight out that he intended Sam Winchester to be a Luke Skywalker type in the beginning. You therefore see Jesus tropes all over the place for him the first two seasons, including in Sam’s ongoing (and tragically unsuccessful) attempts to save, lead and redeem the other Psykids, and culminating in Sam dying an innocent death after he refuses to kill the other surviving Psykid, Jake.

What pushed Sam out of this trope was Kripke’s conflicting desire to have Sam “go dark.” This mostly turned out to be Sam becoming selfish, vengeful and rather cold, not to mention consorting with a demonic witch. Had Sam successfully fought his way through all this to become a better human being, he could still have remained a Christ figure as the Apocalypse heated up. This is especially true, considering that Christ is the protagonist of the two stories the show used as a basis for its mytharc: The Book of Revelation and Paradise Lost. Just as the story needed to have a Lucifer, an Antichrist, a Whore of Babylon, and a quartet of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it also needed a Christ figure. And that Christ figure needed to be the Hero of the story.

The season five premiere recap of the previous season, set to AC/DC’s rousing “Thunderstruck,” sets up Supernatural‘s version of Paradise Lost (shading into Paradise Regained and The Book of Revelation in season five) very well. Note the careful juxtaposition of angelic and demonic, Christ and AntiChrist imagery:

So, for the brothers to be central protagonists of the story (rather than spectators like most of the characters in the movie Legion, or The Omen series) from season four onward, one of them had to be a Christ figure. But by then, it couldn’t be Sam because he was going dark in a way that made him not a Christ figure, but an Antichrist figure.

Other possible candidates included John Winchester (who traded his life and soul to save his son Dean at the beginning of season two) and Bobby Singer (who was a major leader and teacher of other Hunters). However, both of these father figures fell short due to their vengeful natures and their intolerance toward anyone who was not fully human by their judgements. Similarly, while the Prophet Chuck has been bandied about as a God the Creator character, he does not even remotely fit the Christ trope. He doesn’t even really work as a God figure because the biblical God is very actively involved in the storyline, whereas Chuck is a passive figure who stands on the sidelines and narrates the action. If there’s one thing the biblical God is not, in any form, it’s a cheerleader.

More recent and interesting have been the characters of Cain and of the Phoenix. In fact, Cain in particular is so close that one should classify him as a proto-Christ figure and the Phoenix in lore is a strongly Christological image. However, for various reasons I’ll get to in a bit, they both fall short of one other character. And that is Dean Winchester, the show’s other main character. But does he fit this complex trope? Well, let’s see:

He died for the sins of another and was resurrected by Heaven
Compare these two scenes with this scene and you’ll immediately be up to speed on the imagery. The sinless torture and horrific death on behalf of another (known as “Ecce Homo” in Christian iconography), the confounding of Evil in the midst of the Devil’s triumph, frightening signs and wonders, the miraculous immunity of a beloved witness, even the Pieta and the resurrection involving and heralded by angelic power, all are there. It is no coincidence that this sequence was so powerful and struck such a chord with the audience. The many Christians watching had been raised steeped in such imagery.

Then, of course, there’s this scene at the end of the show’s (first) Apocalypse storyline, which reiterates Dean’s remarkable ability to help loved ones break even the strongest possession at a critical moment. Plus, what else would we expect from Jesus in the storyline but to ride into the pissing contest between two archangels in a hot muscle car, blasting Def Leppard?

He is the Redeemer of the story
The central image here, of course, is Dean’s refusal to kill Sam, his insistence on saving his brother from his intended fate as Lucifer’s vessel. Intriguingly, the figure of Cain is presented as a proto-Christ character who offered himself to hellfire in his brother’s place, so that his brother could go to Heaven.

Another proto-Christ character is the Phoenix (a common and vivid image of the Risen Christ), who is seeking vengeance for his dead wife in season six’s “Frontierland.” But he oversteps when he attacks Dean, an innocent. Yes, Dean has told him up front that he has to kill him, but the Phoenix “knows” Dean can’t hurt him and tries to kill him, anyway. Nor does the Phoenix ever do anything to be a Redeemer for others, only an innocent who seeks vengeance for his wife and for his own lynching.

Cain himself notes that the difference between him and Dean is that Dean didn’t kill his brother; he “saved” him. Dean is an advance on these two characters in his actions and morality. He even has inherited Cain’s Mark and has Phoenix ash in his blood.

In addition, Dean puts himself at risk in protecting Sam from the attacks of other Hunters like Gordon Walker and his friends. He also stands up for Sam in season nine’s “Devil May Care” when his breaking the Final Seal is brought up by a Hunter, Tracy, who got into the Life after demons murdered her family.

But other characters also benefit from interacting with Dean, even though most of the show’s recurring characters die violently. Those who die on behalf of the Brothers end up in a better place. Ash, Pamela, Ellen, and Jo all end up in Heaven and later assure the brothers they do not regret dying for them. On the flip side, those who attack the Brothers do not fare well at all.

This even happens to monsters and other supernatural creatures, or (in the case of “Dog Dean Afternoon”) abused animals. Benny, who aids Dean in Purgatory, is able to come back to earth and settle his unfinished business, before ultimately deciding (when Dean asks him for help in guiding Sam back from Purgatory) to stay in Purgatory. For him, Purgatory is now better and he feels as though he belongs there.

The dogs in “Dog Dean Afternoon,” meanwhile, would not have been able to get revenge on the evil human who exploits them to save his own life if Dean had not used a spell to hear their grievances, set a whole shelter full of animals free, and set up the villain to be taken down by an angry dog pack.

Similarly, the angel Castiel aids Dean and dies on his behalf, only to be brought back several times under mysterious circumstances. And Gadriel seeks Dean out twice in his search for redemption, despite betraying him in the middle, and eventually dies a hero.

He is the moral center of the SPNverse
While the character is frequently mocked for this by some fans as “Saint Dean,” it is true that Dean’s morality always seems to end up being the “true” morality of the story. Those who ignore him do so at their peril. Dean is the SPNverse’s judge, jury and often executioner.

When he curses someone, they are as good as dead, no matter how powerful they are. Dean may not kill them, but they are a dead character walking, even so. Even with the Mark of Cain storyline, everyone Dean has pitilessly killed has thoroughly deserved it.

One classic example of this is 2010!Dean’s confrontation with Samifer in 2014. Dean, completely unimpressed by Lucifer’s whining, or even his fawning (“I see why the other angels like you”), pronounces judgement on him as just another monster:

Dean: You’re not fooling me; you know that? With this sympathy-for-the-Devil crap. I know what you are.

Lucifer: What am I?

Dean: You’re the same thing, only bigger. The same brand of cockroach I’ve been squashing my whole life. An ugly, evil, belly-to-the-ground, supernatural piece of crap. The only difference between them and you is the size of your ego.

Lucifer responds by saying that he and Dean will always “end up here.” At that moment, Lucifer recognizes Dean as his opposite number and true adversary, and in both Revelation and Paradise Lost/Regained, that adversary is Christ.

Dean makes a similar speech to Metatron in the season nine finale, “Do You Believe in Miracles?” when he confronts him to buy time for Castiel to find the Angel Tablet and shatter it, thus breaking Metatron’s power:

Dean: You’ve been working those people outside for … what … a day? And already, they’ve spilled blood in your name. You are nothing but Bernie Madoff with wings.

Metatron: So, you’re saying I’m a fake? … I’ve walked among [humans]. And I can save them.

Dean: Sure you can. So long as your mug is in every Bible and “What would Metatron do?” is on every bumper sticker.

Note that in this exchange (and in a previous conversation between Sam and Dean in which Sam says Metatron has a camp of homeless people convinced he’s Jesus), Metatron doesn’t want to be God the Father, per se; he wants to be Jesus. And Dean openly mocks him for his pretension, calling him a fraud.

So, when Metatron announces to Dean that he knows his plan, so it’s hopeless, when Dean goes into the fight to back up his friends with no hope, to die alone believing that they do not love him and feel only contempt for him, the conclusion about who is the Christ figure in that scene is clear. It’s not Metatron.

The angels are obsessed with him
This appears in many ways, most notably in Dean’s ongoing friendship with Castiel, the angel who pulled him out of Hell, and in Zachariah’s dark obsession with forcing Dean into accepting his destiny as Michael’s vessel. But we also see Naomi obsessed with killing Dean, Anna reawakened to her angelic nature by his resurrection, Gadriel seeking Dean out for redemption and his literal favor. Even Lucifer comments on how the angels in general “like” Dean. Dean is the Servant of Heaven who slays the schismatic Whore of Babylon. He is the First Seal and the one who will finish it, Alpha and Omega (another powerful image of Christ).

Also, a major role Dean plays with the angels is that of teacher (and even judge). Dean teaches Castiel about Free Will and the value of humanity. He teaches the wayward Archangel Gabriel to stand up to his brother Lucifer. He judges Lucifer. And he judges and executes Zachariah. He is also instrumental in Lucifer and Michael ending up in the Cage together, wearing his brothers. Even Uriel meets his death after he balks at following Dean.

He is the leader of Team Free Will
Whenever things look bleak. Whenever it appears that the Big Bad is going to win. Whenever it appears that Orthodoxy will prevail. Dean leads the ragtag Rebels against the evil Empire. Dean is the one who inspires people in the SPNverse when they have no hope. Dean is the one who forces weaklings, cowards and traitors to suck it up and do their duty.

Castiel is forced to look at what the angels are doing with the Apocalypse and help Dean escape from the “Beautiful Room” to seek out Sam and prevent him from breaking the Last Seal. Gabriel is forced to face up to his older brother and die in battle to save a goddess he (however haphazardly) loves. Gadriel seeks Dean out twice for redemption for having let the Serpent into the Garden and given Metatron God-like powers with the Angel Tablet.

A further aspect of this is the trope of the False Messiah. Dean repeatedly shows up such figures, usually by letting himself be attacked by them. Metatron sees himself as a “messiah” (a word uttered by one of his worshippers in “Do You Believe in Miracles?”), so Dean comes to teach him a lesson or two on what being Christ truly means.

The Archangel Michael (who is identified by some Christian sects as a pre-Christ figure) rules Heaven and wants to end the Apocalypse wearing Dean. Dean essentially spits in his face and slays Michael’s evil seraph emissary, Zachariah. Later, Dean is instrumental in Michael’s ending up in the Cage with his brother Lucifer. Godstiel mocks Dean, but later repents and dies while doing penance, then is mysteriously resurrected and reunited with his friend. It is at the height of their power that these would-be Gods are all thrown down and Dean Winchester is instrumental in their downfall. Even 2014!Lucifer is shown up by 2010!Dean, declaring his pyrrhic victory over a burnt-out Earth with little conviction.

He is everyone’s scapegoat
Another aspect or role of God in Supernatural is that everyone likes to blame their problems and mistakes on Him. It’s all God’s fault that the angels turned into jerks after He abandoned them. It’s all God’s fault that bad things happen to human beings. And in earlier seasons, under show creator Eric Kripke, the writing tended to back up that view much of the time. The rest of the time, the writing went with the old self-indulgent The Writer Is God trope (so that might explain why every showrunner since Kripke gets slammed by fandom at some point). That trope was even resurrected with Metatron, God’s Scribe.

However, in season nine, that has been turned on its head, by exploring further the aspect of Free Will. Basically, people in the SPNverse are now expected to take responsibility for their own actions, instead of blaming them on some vague scapegoat deity from a long, long time ago and very far away.

This goes hand in hand with the intensifying of Dean’s Jesus imagery. Castiel, even programmed, is held responsible for nearly beating Dean to death in “Goodbye Stranger.” Sam no longer gets a supernatural excuse for being a jackass (though he does still get a supernatural reason for being Limp!Sam). He’s Judas and Peter, respectively (and also somewhat mixed up).

Sam represents Humanity, in both its glory and its despair, in its talents and curses, its humility and its hubris. This is especially true in that the one group God will bend the knee (and the rules) for is Humanity and the one person to whom Dean will always defer, whom he will always put first, is Sam. And after Sam, other humans.

However, you can’t have people hash out their issues with some vague persona of God that you will not and can never really introduce, and Death is too powerful to interact with the story on an extended basis. You need a character to represent, to stand in for this persona, to take on the persona, as it were. And that has become Dean.

Dean gets blamed for a lot of other people’s sins and mistakes, while his own errors are magnified beyond reason (because, regardless of what he is, he is not currently either omniscient or omnipotent). But in the end, Dean is the one who always ends up being right. This is necessary in order for the other characters to have a moral sounding board off which to bounce.

Who is responsible for this?
It’s hard to say. One could argue that it was largely a product of lead actor Jensen Ackles and executive producer Kim Manners (since some of the most intense early religious imagery occurred in episodes that Manners directed). Manners, Ackles and other lead actor Jared Padalecki, for example, protested the writing on season two episode “Houses of the Holy” because it appeared to make priests look evil. They were over-ridden by Kripke, who seemed to have an odd, love-hate attraction to Christological tropes. Kripke himself finally sent Dean to Hell in exchange for Sam’s life (with Dean crucified in Hell, complete with hooks in his side and shoulder, and a thorn-like crown of sweat) and brought in angels. But he always seemed ambivalent about taking these storylines to their logical conclusions.

But later seasons also have Christ imagery. Even season nine finale “Do You Believe in Miracles?” is loaded with Jesus imagery, from Sam telling Dean that Metatron has convinced the group of murderous homeless people from Central Casting that he’s Jesus to the end song as Sam lays Dean on his bed, “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith, which is about addiction, but is also heavily loaded with crucifixion imagery.

Metatron talks about how the angels are “sheep” and he can lead them anywhere (Christ is a shepherd) and we know that Metatron is a false Christ figure in that he actually encourages and abets the lynching of an angel who exposes him, whereas Christ would never do that. When Dean finally faces off with him, Dean goes in to buy time for Castiel to get to the Angel Tablet, not specifically to kill Metatron. As much as Dean hates Metatron, he hates the possibility of becoming an unstoppable monster more, so he essentially lets himself be beaten and stabbed to death by the upstart, the Angel Tablet breaking even as he falls … and then rises again more powerful than before:

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. Isaiah 53:7

Thus, Metatron is reduced and Dean comes back more powerful than before. Albeit with black eyes. Considering the stubbornness with which the show has been clinging to this trope for Dean, this should bring up some interesting theological issues next season.

Perhaps the most telling part of the season nine finale is the moment after Castiel shatters the Angel Tablet. Metatron, having just fatally stabbed Dean, returns to Heaven and mocks Castiel. He says that Castiel “draped yourself in the flag of Heaven,” but it was really to “save Dean Winchester.” When he informs Castiel that he’s just murdered Dean, that Castiel is too late, Castiel is devastated. If Metatron is the wannabe, then there must be the real thing and Castiel, John the Baptist or Peter-like, insists it’s not him. Well, Castiel would know – he’s been Godstiel.

As Castiel tells Dean as early as season five, “I did it – all of it – for you.” And this is the central image that is the most important – the character in a Christian religious story who comes back from Hell after a sinless death that redeems another, who leads the Faithful in an apparently hopeless battle against the forces of Evil, who dies encouraging those around him, whom others willingly follow and for whom others willingly die for their own redemption, that character is the Christ figure of the story.


The Kripke Years

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

Season 5

The Gamble Years

Season 6 (with Kripke)

Season 7

The Carver Years

Season 8

Season 9

Season 10

Season 11

The Dabb Years

Season 12

Season 13

Season 14

Season 15


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St Andrews Day: The Witches of Fife


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MacDonald, Stuart. The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710. John Donald, 2002; 2014.


This was one of those books I was excited to read before I actually read it. I had (as most of you probably know by now) lived in St Andrews for six years and St Andrews was the primary town in Fife, even during the town’s low point in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today is St Andrew’s Day, the day for the saint who gave his name to the town for reasons rather legendary and complicated (they involve a shipwreck with the saint’s bones and a saint who may never have existed named “Regulus”).

St Andrews was a major hotbed for witchcrazes in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to MacDonald, over a thousand people (most of them women and most of them by burning) were executed for witchcraft in Fife over the course of about a century and a half, and a total of over three thousand were accused, some of them by “dying witches” who were either delusional or vengeful. Those are the low-ball numbers. We don’t know the real count.

Religious authorities were heavily involved, though local nobility participated. The rocky relationship involving the slow and not-so-willing union with England under one king (still nominally Scottish) turned the screws. But MacDonald tends to agree with other historians of the period that the witchcrazes in Scotland were mostly about “hunting women.” Can’t argue with that.

When I was in the Mediaeval History program at St Andrews, the Scottish History department was totally separate from us. Despite being right across the hall and up the stairs, they did an excellent job of utterly ignoring us. Something-something about us not being Scottish and being a bunch of total nutters. The upshot is that while I picked up a lot of local popular history and had chats with some notables like Peter Maxwell-Stuart, I got most of my impressions about the history of the Fife witchcrazes from looking around town.

What I found was bloody and ugly and scary. The Covenanters under people like John Knox who launched the religious sect of Presbyterianism had a passionate and stirring dream of a new society completely reoriented to God. Too bad that dream was twisted and fundamentalist and truly misogynistic to the core. MacDonald actually compares them at one point to the Taliban and that is not an exaggeration.

The Covenanters covered the Reformation period in Scotland in blood and no more so than in Fife (probably because St Andrews had been the ecclesiastical capital under the previous religious regime). The presbyteries of Scotland enthusiastically used accusations of witchcraft and the process of witchfinding to suppress all religious dissent. There is literally one woman in the book who was accused because she cursed out the minister and his wife. In another case, a man was convicted in the presbytery court of violating the Sabbath because he was riding on a Sunday to seek a pardon for his wife who was a convicted witch.

And a lot of people who weren’t quite accused (or whose accusations didn’t rise to conviction and execution) were denied the sacrament of Communion for years at a time by petty and spiteful religious authorities. Other people were “watched and warded” (a sort of torture that wasn’t actually considered torture in which people were kept awake and isolated from their families for days or weeks at a time) until they confessed, then executed within days of their trial with no appeal. The sheer viciousness, pettiness and self-righteousness of the Covenanters would be breathtaking if it weren’t repeated in so many situations and cultures over the course of history. Nothing scarier than a sadist who thinks God is on their side.

The scars of both the Reformation (when mobs stripped churches of their vestments and icons and even damaged the buildings) and the witchcrazes are visible in St Andrews to this day. There is what used to be a walled off area that had been a tidal pool for recreational swimmers. It’s near the St Andrews Aquarium, next to West Sands. The legend was that back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was called “Witch Lake.”

Women were taken down there and “dunked” (in this case, tossed into the water with a thumb tied to the opposite toe). If the woman drowned and sank, it was assumed she was innocent (oh, well!), since witches floated and could not be drowned. If the woman managed to survive and float, she was dragged out and up to a nearby hill known as Witch Hill (also, Martyrs’ Hill, as some Protestant martyrs had previously been burned at the stake there) to be burned alive. Charming.

Unfortunately, one of the limitations of MacDonald’s book, which is rather short, is that it restricts itself to taking cases in Fife from a massive, country-wide compilation of cases created in the late 1970 called A Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft (1977). MacDonald himself admits that it doesn’t always deal with the most local cases, let alone the extra-legal executions, so we only get to hear about one such lynching from near the very end of the period, in 1710. No confirmation one way or the other about Witch Lake/Hill. So, that was disappointing.

Another disappointment was that MacDonald seemed to do a lot more scene-setting than he did actual analysis. Sure, I get that it’s an academic book (that’s why I bought it), that it’s got a specific focus and that we’re missing a lot of information about the cases (including, for many of the accused, whether or not they were ever executed). Even so, I felt he got bogged down in the geographical studies early on and rushed the general analysis of motivations and patterns at the end. I felt it would have worked better if he’d flipped that around and and that he chickened out a bit on extending his analysis as far as the information could have borne.

I also felt he left out a lot of potentially important context. If you didn’t know about Scottish history, and especially if you’d never been to Fife, you might well get very lost with this book. Even knowing about the period and having lived there for six years, I felt there were points where MacDonald could have fit his localized analysis into a more in-depth framework. I kept wondering what effect James I/VI’s obsession with witches had on the Fife witchcrazes, but found MacDonald’s suppositions too vague and unsatisfying. He seemed uninterested in looking too much at the few cases with lots of detail, with the excuse that we don’t have enough information on enough cases in general to tell if these more-famous cases were typical or not. This struck me as a cop-out. Nobody’s asking to invent information, but get wacky and take a risk or two, son. Come on.

I also found his conclusion that the witchcrazes fell apart in Fife because the coalition of religious and secular authorities responsible for them collapsed was too Captain Obvious. Well, duh, but surely, the repression of the Covenanters in the 1680s following the Restoration of Charles II had something to do with the timing of that collapse. Their successors called it the “Killing Time” because, like all fanatics, they would have to cast themselves as the victims, wouldn’t they, not all those poor women they burned? But their repression was a natural result of a bigger bully coming in and smashing the previous bully. Both the Covenanters and the lairds who supported them were crushed or at least diminished by the increase of English power over the country, so there went the coalition that created recurring witchcrazes.

I’m no fan of the English takeover of Scotland following the reign of James I/VI, but in this case, it appears the English invaders may have done the poor women of Scotland a favor.


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Prayer of the Imperfect Believer


By Paula R. Stiles


For Lent


Dear Lord,

Help me to remember that I am not perfect.
That I don’t need to plan everything right, before I do anything.
That a stumble still moves me forward.
That late is better than never.
That to be organized is human, to fix divine.

Help me to choose the most important thing, not the most popular.
To remember that cats and kids must always eat,
But dishes and dust bunnies can hang fire for another day.
That we all need a roof overheard even if it leaks sometimes.
And that my credit rating is not as important as keeping the lights on.

Help me to remember compassion and charity, for others and myself.
That fleas, too, shall pass.
And that the dog will forgive me for shouting at other drivers.

And most of all, remind me that after the darkest and most fearful night,
A dawn always comes.

Amen


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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