In Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, Jesus says of his torment, “I make all things new.” And given that it’s a quote from the book of Revelation (21:5), these words seems oddly placed. In the Passion, Jesus is beaten to a bloody pulp. How could this make anything new? The Passion shows how in its beginning and end.
In the beginning, Jesus is praying in the Garden. And yet its not just Gethsamene. It’s the Garden of Eden. The serpent is found in Genesis, tempting the first humans, as the Devil does Jesus here. Jesus is Eve and Adam, undergoing their temptation. This is important because Adam and Eve aren’t just people in the Bible, as the first humans, they stand for all humanity. In their failure the world failed. And in their expulsion from paradise the whole world was expelled.
But in the Passion, Jesus seeks to do something no human has ever done; overcome all temptation, to crush the serpent’s head, and in doing that replace the failure of the first couple as humanities new representative. He therefore suffers to identify with us and not for his own sin.
This is why the Passion so focuses on Jesus’ suffering. This isn’t just Jesus who is suffering, This is humanity suffering: the child bloodied by the attack of ISIS and the one mistreated by their parent. The list examples on and on. Jesus is suffering with every person. And in righteously sharing in that suffering shares with us his resurrection and victory over sin. That;s why in the resurrection, he stands naked as the first humans did before the fall. He’s returning humanity to the garden.
Just think about Jesus’ suffering as you listen to this song. https://youtu.be/gpOPkzplHRw
After watching my Mad Max video, a friend asked me, “how do you know that’s what the author had in mind?”
The same question might be asked of you reading this. How do you know what I’m communicating right now? Simple answer: because I’m telling you and you, of course, know how to read and understand English. There’s a lot about interpretation which we already know.
While there’s a bit of mystery in detecting and interpreting narrative symbolism, on the whole, it’s more like what we objectively do every day. We speak because we expect to be understood. Authors write and invest images with symbolic meaning because they likewise expect us to understand them. But how could they have this expectation? How can we know with relative certainty when an image possesses more than it’s surface meaning and what the meaning is?
While I’ve read and thought a great deal on symbolism, I’ve yet to find a succinct objective explanation on how authors mark out symbols and how audiences intuitively pick up on them. Lacking any simple guide, I’ve honed in on the following.
1. Humans are by nature makers and interpreters of symbols. Language is the primary way we use this ability every day.
2. Words are symbols. A word like “hand” is not the thing itself but a written or spoken representation of the appendage at the end of our arms. Cultural context has invested the sound or combination of letters with that meaning.
3. Since words are symbols they can and often do have more than one meaning. Within our culture, the word “hand” has a number of alternative definitions. And we add to a words list of meanings by bending and adapting them in new contexts.
4. New meanings to words are communicated, not by spelling them out (as in a dictionary) but through implicit connections in the context. This is how “giving someone a hand” came to refer not to the literal act of cutting off that body part but instead to help or applause. The specific context in which these expressions were first used became the key by which the audience was able to understand their meaning. And thus a new definition of “hand” was added to a growing list of definitions, spreading to the wider culture and eventually into the dictionary.
5. Some words (like “hand”) because of the availability of their primary definition are more adaptable to alternative meanings and therefore have a long list of secondary definitions.
6. Without context, we naturally assume a word’s primary definition.
7. Determining if another meaning is intended is a matter of weighing the contextual evidence (both external (the cultural) and internal (the conversational)). More evidence leads to a greater degree of probability.
8. Images within a narrative work in the same way that words do. The image may possess no alternative meaning and thus simply be the thing itself (in other words the primary definition – a picture of a rock is, of course, a rock). But it also may mean something else (an alternative meaning, i.e. symbolic meaning).
9. In a narrative, writers define an image as a symbol by making a connection to a preexisting cultural meaning (An eagle could represent the United States, Freedom and or Flight etc.) or they make some connection to an alternative meaning within the context of the book or film etc. itself. Metaphors and similes spoken in dialogue are potentially carried over into corresponding images within the world of the story. A metaphor in one conversation can define the corresponding image in another scene. But connections can be made implicitly through the narrative as well. The mirroring of one image with another through proximity and similarity is one technique at an authors disposal. The effect of cutting between two similar images in a film has the effect of placing those images side by side with equal sign in between – in essence an implicit metaphor.
10. Since people intuitively understand how symbolism in language works, they are well supplied to make the leap in interpreting narrative symbolism. Whether they cognitively know it or not, symbolism works it’s magic even on the unsuspecting reader.
This movie may not look like a sermon to the sexes. It’s an action film. One crazed carnivalesque chase scene, from beginning to end. And yet Fury Road has been widely recognized as a feminist film! It’s about powerful women, specifically the war-rig driver Furiosa and the female band she rescues from sexual enslavement. And in a land of mothers, we’re introduced to even more badass women.
The male Max, by contrast, seems a lesser figure. For the first quarter of the film, he’s an incapacitated victim. And when released, he rarely speaks, fighting alongside or at the direction of Furiosa. But this is a movie equally for men and it would be a mistake to downplay Max’s role. What he does and what’s done to him becomes the film’s symbol of redemption.
The film presents Max as a bird of prey. Though he tries to fly from captivity, he’s confined to a birdcage and made to wear a muzzle that resembles a beak. Which is in part defined in the dashes bobbling birds head. But Max isn’t just any bird, rising from the ashes of a fiery crash, he’s revealed to be the Pheonix. And it’s this resurrected bird who appears destined to confront the beast who boasts. “I am your redeemer. It is by my hand you will rise from the ashes of this world.”
But it’s a lie! Under the control of Immortan Joe (who lives by machine), People, like nature, have been reduced to fuel. His female concubines are charged to give birth to his warriors. And if they aren’t producing them, they’re being drained of their milk to fuel them. Males are likewise exploited, promised a heavenly reward if they fight and die for Joe’s rule. And if they aren’t fighting, their blood is drained like gas for those that do.
It’s because the women have been oppressed by this man that they fly to a world without men. But for obvious reasons, they find that world equally doomed. It’s Max who stops them from going further. Like them, he began the film avoiding others. But now he’s a changed man.
Subjected, like the women, to the position of a rape victim, Max is bound via a chain of blood to the war-boy Nux. and through that image symbolically impregnated with him, placed at the mercy of his unborn child in the driver seat. The film further suggests this relationship in the mirrored images of an unborn baby’s foot and umbilical chord.
At first, Max shows little concern for his newborn. It’s only after their link stops Nux from carrying out Joe’s wishes and Nux turns to use that same link to help Max, that Max comes to embrace Nux as Son. Investing him with a boot and the control of the War-Rig. Nux has become a little Max which is what his name reflects. Now a mother, Max washes in “mother’s milk” and is accepted into the “land of many mothers.”
It’s this male and female Max who turns the women towards the source of their oppression. Life, for Max, is found in redeeming this one. Which can only happen when men and women unite against the exploitation of the beast and his machine.
Fury Road isn’t just a post-apocalyptic film. It’s the apocalypse itself – a retelling of the book of Revelation. The Citadel, over which Joe rules is the city of Babylon with its legendary hanging gardens. Joe is the beast, possessing a mouth like a lion. And the dragon, seeking to devour the woman and her child.
Like Revelation, Fury Road is epic vision of humanities restoration from the fall. According to Genesis, Revelation’s source, it was in following a serpent, that the sexes were cursed to an endless cycle of subjugation. The serpent was cursed to eat the dust and war with woman. The woman to war with man. And man to war with the ground until he returns to the dust in death, to be eaten by the serpent.
But both the book and film pick up on Genesis’ promise that one day the woman’s child will crush the serpents head. Max is said to eat shlanger. Joe is called a shalnger. And because the word is undefined in the film it evokes the imagine of the one thing Max does eat. Instead of being eaten in the dust. Fury Road opens with Max eating the serpent’s head.
Son of Man
In Revelation, it’s Jesus, the Son of Man, the ideal man and representative of all men, who brings this war to an end. The Pheonix is a traditional symbol of him. Max, like Jesus, is “lifted up” on a cross so that his universal blood can give life to the dying. Nux’s hoped for resurrection becomes a reality not in Joe’s exploitation but in the passion and resurrection of Max who pulls Nux from a symbolic tomb and womb.
In the end, it’s Max’s born again son who gives his life for others, in witness, the meaning of martyr, overturning the oppression of jihad to halt the long train of war. The woman also brings about an end to the war, slaying the beast by stripping his mouth and her hand of the machine. But in the midst of the fight, Furiousa receives a mortal wound. A symbolic inversion of woman’s creation from a bone in man’s side. And yet its this creation account which explains why man sacrifices to restore the unity between the sexes.
It’s though a picture of marriage that Max becomes one with Furiosa. He reopens her side, drains his blood to fill her and ultimately gives her his name. This is life. Man lays down his life for his wife as the Woman gives life to their child. And through mutual self-giving renews the world. Fury Road ends like Revelation with a marriage between Christ and his bride, a transformed people and city where the water’s of life flow without ceasing. By the sacrifice of the ideal redeemer, woman and the world are lifted up.
I had the idea for this video in 2006. I was driving home from teaching on the gospels when Delirious’ “Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble” shuffled onto my I-Pod.
Did you feel the mountains tremble?
Did you hear the oceans roar?
When the people rose to sing of
Jesus Christ the risen one
Did you feel the people tremble?
Did you hear the singers roar?
When the lost began to sing of
Jesus Christ the risen one
And we can see that God you’re moving
A mighty river through the nations
And young and old will turn to Jesus
Fling wide your heavenly gates
Prepare the way of the risen Lord
Open up the doors and let the music play
Let the streets resound with singing
Songs that bring your hope
Songs that bring your joy
Dancers who dance upon injustice
This song, and particularly this performance, had always reminded me of Christ’s resurrection; the moment at which He triumphantly leads the captives out of Hades to stand before the gates of Heaven (Psalms 24). Years before, I attempted to write a screenplay with that image and this song as it finale. I shelved the idea, however, in frustration that such a movie would ever be made.
But as it so happened, that day, I had just finished exploring with my Canby Bible College students the way in which the Shawshank Redemption hinges on an allusion to Christ’s death and resurrection. As I listened to the song, images from a half dozen movies began to flicker in my mind.
I realized that while I may never make a movie about the glories of Christ’s resurrection, that movie has already been made. The wonders of our Lord are proclaimed in films time and time again. Surprisingly, though, for most Christians, it’s often in rated R films or movies that never explicitly speak His name.
Our Lord has triumphed not just over the grave, nor simply over those who have chosen to accept him. He has captured the hearts of all mankind. They simply fail to recognize it. He is the Longing of Man.
This Jesus in disguise – this Christ figured, who makes his appearance in so many movies – reminds me of how those two disciples in Luke 24 who didn’t recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus. While they are walking, the resurrected Jesus approaches them and asks them why they are downcast. They explain how he (Jesus) was crucified in Jerusalem and they were sad because they thought he might have been the messiah. But then Jesus explains to them the story of scripture and how the crucified messiah actually makes sense of the story. When at last their eyes are opened and Jesus disappears from their sight, they ask “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
I have the burning feeling often in watching great films. And I’m been surprised again and again by the presence of Jesus in these places I least suspect. When you watch a movie and feel that burning, perhaps it’s Jesus and his story that’s calling to you.