By David Tassell
Christian culture has had a knack for finding its story of the salvation of the world through the sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ mirrored in myriad other stories. These “Christ-types” often have less to do with authorial intent, and more to do with recognizing how the story’s pattern seems to echo in other human stories across history. Students of Judaism and other ancient religions will note that various contours of the Christian story are even more ancient than Jesus, so it might ring true that the components of the story also recur into the future.
In fact, one doesn’t have to look far in modern time to find a variety of stories in literature and film where alert readers have seen characters whose stories mirror Jesus’ sacrifice of his life to save others, followed by themes of resurrection. One such instance is the story of The Lord of the Rings where there is no shortage of perceived Christ types. Frodo Baggins’ carrying the burden of the ring, Gandalf’s actual death and resurrection, and Samwise’s bearing of Frodo’s burden all make them candidates for Christ representatives.
Another more recent instance is Harry Potter, which also literally features the protagonist bearing part of the soul of the personification of evil (Voldemort), sacrificing his life for his friends, and ultimately conquering that evil and being resurrected. Authorial intent aside, one could forgive Christians for seeing their Christ story in Harry’s story.
These “Christ types” need not always be male characters, however. In fact, I have been struck lately by the moving images of this story of power in sacrifice in female characters. There is a certain refreshment of the story as it appears through women, and I would argue a magnification of the much needed and often overlooked feminine in Christ.
One character in which many have noticed the familiar story is Katniss Everdeen in the book and movies series, The Hunger Games. Katniss’ story of volunteering herself in place of her sister, Primrose, kicks off a plot which has incurred notice as a Christ-type. Her powerful depiction as a savior (Messiah?) figure in Panem then continue to give plenty of material to fuel this imagery.
Even more recently in the Netflix series Stranger Things, Eleven, the badass girl with mysterious power has also been noticed in this way. At the end of season one, Eleven sacrifices herself to save her friends, destroying another personification of evil, the Demogorgon. In season 2, she has a resurrection of sorts (not before descending into the Upside Down, a hellish place indeed). Again, I have no idea whether the creators of Stranger Things had anything about Jesus in mind, but the parallels are certainly still noticeable.
So, why then is this important and even exciting for many? Why might imagining the Christ story through a feminine character be especially notable?
Well, in one class in seminary we were discussing what the significance was of Jesus Christ (the historical personal) being male. Other implications aside, I recall one of my fellow students noting that the whole Christian thing honestly felt a little less life-giving for her as a woman. I realized as a Christian and a man, I might take for granted that the person I follow is a man, and in that sense more relatable to me.
So therein lies part of the importance. Seeing the Christ story through feminine characters provides a bridge for more children of God to see themselves in Christ. This isn’t an entirely foreign concept in the Bible. First of all, Jesus refers to himself in the gospels with the image of a hen. Secondly, if male and female are created in God’s image (Genesis 1) and all things were created in and through Christ (Colossians 1), then we might reasonably conclude that while incarnated as male, that men do not claim the exclusive reflection of the second person of the Trinity. Not only do women benefit from stories where they see themselves in Christ, but we all benefit from seeing Christ’s image more fully in feminine characters.
Simply put, if God desires that all people are conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8), then unless God meant to require everyone become a man (don’t think so), it is in fact critically important that all people be able to imagine Christ’s image in their own gender.
11 Comments Add yours
I think that what you were talking about his less “ christ types” and more “hero types”. The thing that you were calling a kind of commonality in story I think is more around the story of the hero more than it is around the story of Christ.
I would say that the story of Christ might be a particular kind of hero story. Heroes do not always die and then awaken in a new form; but heroes deal with crises and transform through that experience.
I mean, maybe we could say Persephone was a kind of Christ story like you’re talking about, echoed in time and other mythologies. But I’m not sure if cat Ness from the hunger games is really a Christ figure; Sure, we could say that every hero story is about some sort of savior for a group or whatever, but I don’t think the Christ story is about a savior as much as it is about a person who dies and is transformed.
Likewise harry potter might be a savior in some sense but I don’t think that he is a Christ figure I think he is more a heroic.
But maybe I’m splitting hairs🙂
Landzek, thank you for your thoughts! I appreciate your feedback. Even *if* it’s splitting hairs, it’s a helpful point of consideration. I am trying to apply the term “Christ-type” in a fairly relative way. Since I understand the concept of this site to be writing from within a tradition, I am trying to speak to the way that many Christians see the Christ story in other stories–regardless of authorial intention. As in, I don’t know that Suzanne Collins intended Katniss to be a Christ-type (I’m guessing not), but I do think Christians might recognize aspects of the Christ story in her story. I’m suggesting “Christ-type” as a category exists more in the imagination of some, rather than something that might be as widely observed as “hero type”.
That said, I imagine applying the term “hero type” might be more technically correct in a literary sense (I am married to an English teacher so perhaps I should ask! ha!), but I am trying to apply the term “Christ-type” from a more relative perspective, if that makes sense.
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I suppose one can focus in on different elements of the “Christ-story” and/or prioritise them in different ways. For example, to me one of the interesting things about the story of the Passion involves the rejection of the (literal) sword, even in self-defence, whereas the heroes of myth very often fought and killed their enemies and, indeed, that is an important part of what makes them heroic.
Frodo, I think, is more Christ-like than Katniss, because Frodo carries the burden/sin of the ring and suffers violence without inflicting violence on others.
I think it may, in terms of narrative, be important to look at how much power the character has initially, before they make a Christ-like sacrifice. Is it someone who is already oppressed who is then obliged to/chooses to suffer further? Or is it someone who is powerful (as God is), who chooses to sacrifice themselves? The former story may be read as having a message which stifles the already suffering, whereas the latter perhaps poses a challenge to those with privilege/power.
There may, then, be reasons why it would not be advantageous to encourage women to be Christ-like in this particular way. Esther McIntosh, for example, notes that,
in 2006 the Church of England released a document entitled Responding to Domestic Abuse. […] specifically, the document states that ‘the example of Christ’s sacrificial self-giving has encouraged compliant and passive responses by women’. (210)
More generally, the language of sacrifice serves to legitimize the power of the dominant class and encourages the subordinate class to sacrifice themselves to that power out of duty to their religion. Women often anticipate and are required to surrender or do without a variety of opportunities for the benefit of their families and their religious community. (215-16)
McIntosh, E. (2007). The Concept of Sacrifice: A Reconsideration of the Feminist Critique, International Journal of Public Theology, 1(2), 210-229. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/156973207X207344
I think you make a number of really great points here, particularly with regard to women and the language of sacrifice. I’ll see if I can get David to respond to your critique. ~Matt
Laura, thank you for this insightful response. I think you point out a significant blind spot in my language of “sacrifice” and I’m glad you addressed it. After reading your comment I thought to myself, “how much did I use the word ‘sacrifice’?” The answer is of course quite a lot, and I wish now I had cultivated a different emphasis.
What I want to emphasize is the way stories in pop culture have the capacity (intentionally or unintentionally) to (speaking from a perspective within Christianity) call to mind the Christ story–and death & resurrection sort of narratives can especially do that. Seeing that called to mind in feminine characters can, I hope, depict the divine feminine and speak to the fact that being a “Christian” does not mean becoming male. I want to say that there is better language I could have used to emphasize this than “sacrifice” and you point out critically important reasons why language of “sacrifice” can be a problem.
For instance, perhaps I could have more emphasized the victorious aspects of feminine characters like Eleven defeating the personification of evil, or conquering death itself over the emphasis of sacrifice. The type of story can call Christ to mind, but the strength and leadership of Katniss in overcoming oppression are, perhaps, “Christlike” features better emphasized.
In any case, as you pointed out it is also important that the oppression of Eleven and Katniss (and Harry Potter, for that matter) are different from the incarnation (a choice of God). This is an important difference for sure. At the same time, I am inclined to say (particularly from a Lukan perspective) Christ came to turn the world’s power dynamics upside down and teaches that contexts of oppression by conventional power are where we find the presence of God’s Kingdom–which is ultimately liberating the poor and oppressed rather than holding people in a perpetual state of sacrifice. That said, perhaps we expect to find Christ in Panem, turning the conventional, oppressive powers on their head?
All of this said, I do appreciate the critique and directing me to Esther McIntosh’s piece. I appreciate the chance to think (and rethink) more deeply about these concepts and to have attention called to blind spots. If you have any interest in replying again, I would love to hear more of your perspective.
“Seeing that called to mind in feminine characters can, I hope, depict the divine feminine and speak to the fact that being a “Christian” does not mean becoming male.”
I don’t want to get tangled up in a long discussion about sex vs. gender, but it seems to me that there is a difference between being feminine and being female; a person can be one without being the other.
In the Middle Ages, the “rise of affective piety and mystical theology included increased devotion to female figures and use of feminine metaphors for God” (Bledsoe 37). With respect to the former, one might do the equivalent today by asking how similar Katniss is to Joan of Arc. As for “feminine metaphors”, here’s an inspirational story about a hen (really!): https://www.messagesfromgoddevotional.com/articles/2018/11/12/our-god-the-mother-hen
Bledsoe, Jenny “Feminine Images of Jesus: Later Medieval Christology and the Devaluation of theFeminine.”Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies3, no. 1 (2011). https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/imwjournal/vol3/iss1/4
I appreciate this piece. It seems to have sprung from recognizing how rare it is to see the usage of “Christ-type” in relation to female characters. Since the Biblical text has been viewed for much of our history through a patriarchal lens, it is encouraging to see a writer calling attention to female embodiments of this “Christ-type” idea.
I would also like to comment with regard to the domestic abuse comment. Firstly, while I certainly agree that advising or compelling any victim of abuse or oppression to remain in a situation of abuse is enequivocally wrong, I do not see this piece as encouraging that, nor do I see it portraying that type of dynamic. Secondly, I would like to use the example of Eleven to interact with that concern. (I can’t use Katniss, because I have only seen 2 of the 4 Hunger Games). Although the writer did not reference this, I actually believe Eleven’s story demonstrates the opposite of the type of sacrifice which involves staying with your abuser. Eleven escapes and then ultimately confronts her abuser, her sacrifice is unrelated to this. Sacrifice comes into the picture in an entirely different way when she lays down her life to save her friends. This is significant because Eleven’s story not only illustrates the “Christ-type” idea, it also provides an example of an empowered victim.
I also think it is important to mention that the writer does not encourage anyone to imitate the characters referenced in the article; rather, he champions inclusion by encouraging readers to find female “Christ-types” in a category that has been long dominated by male characters.
Sam, I think we read the initial post in different ways. As David later said:
After reading your comment I thought to myself, “how much did I use the word ‘sacrifice’?” The answer is of course quite a lot, and I wish now I had cultivated a different emphasis.
I think where you saw a focus on the possibility of female characters being “Christ-like”, I heard an emphasis on “sacrifice”. The two readings are both possible and valid; they focus on different aspects of the initial post.
Obviously, “sacrifice” does not have to involve domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is, however, a context in which “sacrifice” can literally involve blood, physical suffering and a Christ-like death.
That said, “sacrifice” might also involve one person in a marriage giving up their ambitions (and perhaps their sense of self) to support another person’s career, or giving up their career because they have to be a carer for another person, or giving up their hobbies and leisure time because they have to cook, clean, and organise a family’s activities.
All I’m saying is that while heroes in fiction have often tended to be male, we (regardless of our sex and/or gender) generally don’t get an opportunity to copy them in our daily lives, but opportunities to “sacrifice” are many, and women have long been encouraged to do so in ways which are not considered heroic. That makes the use of the word “sacrifice” one which may be received differently by women, absorbed in a different way into their lives, and have different consequences.
If nothing else, my response to the original post can be taken as an indication of the weight and connotations of the word “sacrifice”, when used in the context of women’s lives.
Laura, I think that’s a fair point. Your clarification is helpful. Thank you!
A little late to the party but I have been thinking a lot about this in regards to Rey and Kylo in Star Wars. Rey, as the feminine Christ figure, trying to reach the lost sheep, Ben/Kylo. Ben then becomes a picture of the masculine Bride of Christ.
Many people have made comparisons between Rey and Kylo and Beauty and the Beast. The Beast, having fallen from his higher nature, needs to learn to accept love to break the spell. The spell not only affects him but his entire household where everybody is literally reduced to the function they serve and nothing more. The household is literally ‘objectified’ which, to me, speaks of organized, loveless, dead religion.