Category Archives: Religion

Jesus in “Supernatural”: Part 1


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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.

museu_arqueologic_de_creta24-r50

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.

chuck-r50

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.

amulet-r50

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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