Gospel and culture: The inspiration of Wonder Woman and the disappointment of its postscript

It was a real joy to participate in Tabor’s inaugural Theologiconconference a couple of weeks ago, presenting a session on Wonder Woman. We had a great day talking about the intersections between pop culture and the gospel and looking at how the media we engage with both reflects and shapes the world around us. While I am basically an outsider to the ‘Comicon’ crowd, I think this was a useful position from which to analyse the movie and in particular to consider the connection points between its story and the gospel story, as well as why it resonated so strongly with many women in our culture.

Wonder Woman is ultimately a story about grace.

The film’s climactic moment comes when Diana realises the falsity of the key assumption she has made – an assumption which is the conventionally accepted wisdom of our day – that humanity at its heart is good. She sees the darkness and hatred within humanity and realises that they don’t deserve her help or her love. But she chooses to give it anyway. That’s grace. It’s an echo of the best story ever told, the good news of an incarnate God who recognises our brokenness and undeservedness but chooses to redeem us anyway because of his great love.

It’s also worth considering why this particular iteration of Wonder Woman was so popular and seemed to speak so powerfully to many women. I heard numerous comments from friends and students along the lines of “Now I understand why guys like superhero movies so much!” A wide array of memes on social media showed similar resonances.

At Theologicon, I suggested that in a world where male characters continue to make up over 70% of characters on screen in popular films and speak more than twice as often as their female characters, where women’s roles are trivialised and overtly sexualised, Wonder Woman was both a breath of fresh air and a powerful statement. I think it tapped into the frustrations and desires of many women in this cultural context and spoke in particular about how they wish they were seen more often.

Diana Prince in 2017’s Wonder Woman is both empowered and empowering. She is heroic, brave and strong. She is the protagonist of her own story, but the men surrounding her do not appear threatened or emasculated by her. She is portrayed as clearly feminine and yet not overly sexualised. She is emotionally vulnerable, idealistic, perhaps even naïve, and her greatest strengths lie in her compassion, her love and her hope. She upends the assumptions that a parade of men make about her to ensure that she is fully heard and seen. She fires up our imagination of what a girl can be.

I proposed that something in this movie crystallised a wider cultural moment that many women are experiencing. In a world of #YesallWomen and #Metoo and an industry of the likes of Weinstein and Cosby, it felt like part of the reclaiming of women’s voices and experiences, not to privilege them above those of men, but to put them alongside as equally valuable as well as uniquely contributive.

And I think this brings a challenge to the church, which unfortunately has a reputation in this area that is not that dissimilar to the overall reputation of most superhero movies. That is, a reputation of assigning women a second-class status and a subordinate role. Of telling its story predominantly through the voices and perspectives of men. Of failing to inspire imagination in women of all they are created and called to be. This greatly saddens me because it is not the way the Bible or the gospel presents women, who are invited to be co-heirs with Christ and participants in the co-creating work of God.

I want to continue challenging the church to inspire this kind of imagination in our women and girls alongside our men and boys.

So obviously my review of the movie was pretty positive. I’m currently writing up my session on Wonder Woman into some kind of academic paper (!) and so will continue to ponder some of these thoughts further.

But for all my positivity, my pop-culture analysis experience comes with a frustrating and disappointing postscript. Some of the DC fans who attended my session asked me afterwards if I was planning to see Justice League, the new EDCU movie in which Wonder Woman is a key character. I hadn’t previously thought about it, but in answering their questions, discovered that my genuine answer was yes. I had found Wonder Woman engaging enough to go see the follow up, no doubt fulfilling the hopes of the movie’s producers and marketers of drawing a new consumer cohort to their ongoing enterprise.

So last weekend I saw Justice League and all I can do is sigh. Two steps forward, five steps back.

I lost count of the number of camera shots that went up Wonder Woman’s skirt or zoomed in on her butt. I was irritated and disturbed by the sexualisation of both Diana and her entire tribe in the costuming choices made for them. I rolled my eyes at the objectifying way that every other character in the movie relates to Diana. And I lamented the lack of any other female leads, as if one out of six is somehow equality.

Many others have commented on the differences between the two movies, and in particular the gender of their respective directors and the deflating impact of storytelling this particular character via the male gaze. If Wonder Woman tapped into the hopes for how women would like to be portrayed, Justice League felt like it mansplained them to put them back into their usual Hollywood blockbuster place. Sorry DC, but I think you might just have lost me.

Fortunately, the much bigger story that I’m far more interested in how we tell has an abundantly better postscript. The forthcoming instalment of the gospel story is one in which all things are set right once and for all. Where our imagination of all we can be finds expression in the complete realisation of all our hopes for reconciled relationships between women, men, God and all of creation. Where ultimate grace and justice triumph. No disappointments there.

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Walking through history, or today would be a good day to be in Budapest

I haven’t posted a Monday travel reflection in a while, but today I’m thinking I’d love to go back to the city of Budapest for another wander. Hungary is still a country I admit to knowing very little about – culture, history, food, people. But I truly loved spending a few days walking the streets of its capital city and getting just a tiny glimpse of some of those things.

One thing I’ve learned about myself through travel is that I make sense of a place by walking it. And walking helps me connect with its history too. Imagining those who have walked before, gaining insight into their lives and experiences, never fails to inspire, challenge, move and teach me.

What did I love about Budapest?

The architecture.

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The Hungarian Parliament building on the Pest side of the Danube is stunning …

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… as is the Castle on the Buda side.

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Linking the two sides of the city are a number of bridges, including the impressive Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

There are beautiful churches …

… as well the lovingly restored Dohány Street Synagogue.

Nationalistic pride is on display in different ways from the military memorial at Heroes Square,

to the reliquary supposedly holding St Stephen’s right hand in the Basilica.

I’m a bibliophile, and Budapest had one of the best and most beautiful bookcafes I have ever been to, the Alexandra Bookcafe, although sadly it has apparently recently closed.

What did I learn from Budapest?

What you can’t miss wandering the streets of this city are the memorials everywhere. Testaments to not just life, but death and brutality. Those who were “disappeared” under the Soviet regime.

Those who were deliberately and publicly exterminated en masse.

Jews have a long history in Hungary, and made up almost a quarter of the population at the beginning of World War II. Up to three quarters of these people did not survive the war.

 

I’ve been to a number of Holocaust Museums around the world, but found Budapest’s one of the most moving, with its honest accounts of the harrowing story and lists of thousands upon thousands of names.

It is housed in a renovated synagogue, and at the back of the prayer hall there are ‘ghost seats’ for the members of the congregation who did not return.

In the Jewish cemetery, Imre Varga’s weeping willow statue bearing the family names of murdered Jews is hauntingly beautiful.

For me personally, perhaps most affecting was the memorial called “Shoes on the Danube River” which marks the spot where 3,500 people were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militia.

I’ve been similarly moved by piles of shoes at Auschwitz in Poland and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. There is something simply profound in imagining the lives of those who once walked in a pair that has been left behind.

How does that speak into how I think about where my shoes will be walking this day?

Podcast Recommendations: what I’m listening to and why

Over three years ago I blogged some of my current (at the time) book recommendations. I’m still reading lots, but I’m also finding myself listening to more podcasts recently, as well as having some interesting conversations with friends about podcasts they’re currently enjoying. While I’ve given in to the kindle, I still resist audio books because they are ‘just not the same’. Yet I recognise that I learn and engage differently by hearing than I do reading. Podcasts can be great for that space. I find them a good way of connecting various strands of my life and thought – faith, culture, politics, entertainment – by listening to interesting and inspiring people, both those like me and those very different from me.

I think I came slightly late to the world of podcasts, although I know there are still plenty who haven’t yet engaged with the phenomenon. This is my current “Top 10” podcast list (in no particular order). I’d love to hear some recommendations from others as to what you’re listening to and why so please feel free to comment below!

Wilosophy

This was in some ways my introduction to the joy of podcasts and certainly the first podcast I was ‘in on’ from the start. I pretty much stumbled upon it, but listening to someone I find interesting having conversations with other interesting people about the big questions of life is inspiring, challenging, fascinating, and thought-provoking. Many of Wil Anderson’s guests see life and faith very differently to me, but as I learn about them I’m often learning about myself and my world as well. New episodes come out a bit sporadically (maybe once a month or so) and I tend to save these for a longer car or train journey. I think perhaps some of the earliest interviews were the best, but you never know whose ideas are going to resonate or provoke the most.

Conversations

I’m an ABC radio listener from way back, so have appreciated Richard Fidler’s ability to draw out stories of life from all kinds of people for many years – if I happened to be driving at the right time of day. Getting on to the podcast means I can listen when I choose, but given that this is 5 episodes a week, I tend to listen either if I’ve heard a snippet in the car and been intrigued, or I’m already interested in the person or their story. From Miroslav Volf to John Howard, to a woman whose husband went to gaol and a Saudi Arabian woman who dared to drive, Fidler always manages to draw out thoughts, emotions, and experiences that connect to my own life and easily transport me into walking in someone else’s shoes for a time.

The Allusionist

I love language, so British linguist Helen Zaltzman’s 20 minute podcasts exploring words is one I keep coming back to. Recent episodes on ‘indefinite hyperbolic numerals’ (i.e. the words zillion, squillion, and kajillion), the words we use for migrants (including how immigrant, refugee, and asylum seeker have become pejoratives used for the ‘other’ whereas ex-pat is solely reserved for those who look like us), and lexicography (what it’s like to write dictionaries) have not only expanded my vocabulary and my thinking, but continue to develop my own use of this beautiful, messy tongue we call English.

Theology for Life

I work in this discipline, plus I had the privilege of meeting one of the co-hosts when she was in Australia a couple of months ago, which got me started on a few episodes of Ed Stetzer and Lynn Cohick’s endeavour of relating theology to everyday issues. These run around the 20-30 minute mark and I’ve already found a couple I want to recommend to my students as they apply issues in biblical and theological studies in practical ways.

The West Wing Weekly

The West Wing remains my all time favourite TV series and I’m pretty sure this is also my favourite podcast. Another one that I have been ‘in on’ since the first episode was released, I look forward to Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina’s recap of episodes as well as behind the scenes interviews and real life political connections. They too have influenced my vocabulary, with things I ‘bump’ on in other areas of life as well as many of my own ‘ay-ay-ay’ moments in the current political climate. The idea of the podcast is to re-watch each TV episode before listening, but I’m mostly familiar enough from multiple previous watchings to just listen to the podcast as soon as possible after it is released each week. They have already had as guests key cast members including Brad Whitford, Richard Schiff, Dule Hill, Janel Moloney, Rob Lowe, and Allison Janney, as well as series creator Aaron Sorkin a number of times. More recently they scored some impressive ‘gets’ with guest star Mark Harmon, Canadian Prime Minister (!) Justin Trudeau, and even an unaired interview with the late John Spencer. I’m just waiting and hoping for Martin Sheen and Stockard Channing …

Chat 10 Looks 3

I’m a bit newer to this podcast, whose followers are a bit of a self declared ‘cult’, and was introduced by a number of different friends. The audience appears to be made up predominantly of Australian women around my age and the basic agreement is that you listen to this because you think you would be good friends with Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales if you met them in real life. Most of the time you’re just listening in on their conversation as these two intelligent and engaging women discuss what they’re reading, watching, cooking, and thinking about. Oh, and once you listen it’s pretty much obligatory to buy some saladas and make this thing called ‘crack’ at least once.

Sermonsmith

As a preacher, there are numbers of podcasts that talk about the art of sermon preparation and delivery. This is one I have found useful so far, with interviews with a range of preachers providing great insights into different ways people go about this ancient and contemporary task. I have also really appreciated their desire to hear from a wide range of preachers – women and men, people from various cultural backgrounds and church contexts, and people working in a diverse range of communities. Episodes come out twice a month and there is a back catalogue I haven’t gone very far into, but the few I’ve listened to so far have contained helpful hints and moments of good ‘solidarity’ with others engaging in the same area of ministry.

Pray as you go

I have been listening to this on and off for many years, long before I even realised it fit the category ‘podcast’. A daily 10-15 minute reflection on a Scripture reading, this uses the Ignatian tradition to provide space for prayerful engagement with the text. I find engaging with different Christian traditions at different times helps enrich and renew my own spirituality and so this is one I regularly come back to in different seasons. While travelling around Europe earlier this year, I loved using these podcasts each day, taking time to sit in the pews of one of the cathedrals or ancient churches I was visiting and ‘tune out’ the tourist noises, reconnecting with God in those sacred spaces. Back home, I try to find my own ‘sacred space’ to make the most of these.

The Comedian’s Comedian

While I have no illusions that I will ever be a comedian, I enjoy listening to them and have found that I get good insights from them about how to think and speak. This podcast is one comedian interviewing other comedians about what makes them tick and how they do what they do, which can be surprisingly poignant and moving. I’ve only listened to episodes with guests whose comedy I am already familiar with, but have found it insightful and entertaining and in particular good for listening to on long plane flights as long as you don’t mind the occasional odd look from fellow passengers if you do actually laugh out loud.

Red All Over

I recently watched The Handmaid’s Tale and found it overwhelmingly beautiful, entirely compelling, and completely disturbing. Continued watching almost required finding people to debrief with and so I went looking for a podcast to hear what others were seeing and thinking. This was the best I came across. I found it a bit hit and miss (and I wondered whether Hrishi and Josh have ruined TV show podcasts for me by setting my expectations too high), but it did give me opportunities to work through my own reactions and responses to what I think was a significant contemporary series to engage with.

So there you have it … another list that probably says more about me than I intended it to! What podcasts are you listening to and would you recommend?