Signifying and scripturalization takes place in many forms in our culture, through music, art, media, television and many other forms of entertainment. Although many of these productions claim to not have any religious affiliation, they cannot help being influenced by the religion of the culture of the people who developed it. More often than not, it is the internalized dominant sacred texts or scriptures of the people that are used in the asaociated signifying process. What is signifying? According to Henry Louis Gates Jr, signifying is when you are alluding, implying or insinuating divergent meanings of words and phrases for the benefit of a particular person or group. When you signify you understand that meanings are adaptable and changeable.1 Scripturalization, according to Lynne Darden’s interpretation of Grey Gundaker’s work, is “the re-contextualization of sacred text. The term is derived from the understanding that sacred text and community cannot be separated from its scriptures. It is through the process of scripturalization that the formation, deformation and reformation of community are possible.”2
Christianity the major religion in the West has constantly played a prominent role in Hollywood even though I suspect it would likely be denied. As a result, there is often observed biblical allusion in Hollywood movies like the Matrix and television series like Scandal. Many popular songs, like Lady Gaga’s Judas and Madonna’s Like A prayer are influenced by the Christian message. Sometimes, Hollywood in movies like War and Risen uses biblical allusions to critique popular Christianity and at other times affirm the worth of basic Christian values that are so much a part of the culture. These values have always been at work in the culture. It is also observed that no matter the culture, Christ like characters are present and appreciated. The interpreted popular message of these Hollywood production is that we are relationally all the same.
I have a huge interest in science fiction and fantasy television shows and series that have a huge background in mythology and fables. The television show I am writing about in this paper that has a great deal of signifying and scripturalization in it is Xena, the Warrior Princess. Although the television series takes place in a mythologized version of ancient Greece, the series sends its main characters on travel adventures around the mythologized world for its time. For example, the land of the Norse is traveled to and signified as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland and China as Chin. The main characters also travel to North Africa, Rome, Japan, and ancient Palestine where they meet David and King Saul. Before I get into the ways in which the series uses signification and scripturalization, I will provide a background for the show.
Xena, the Warrior Princess is a spinoff of the series, Hercules, the Legendary Journeys. Xena was an evil warlord who was redeemed by Hercules after she tried numerous times to killed him. After Hercules redeemed her, she went on to have her own adventures by doing right deeds. She absolves the guilt from her evil past by helping people. Redemption is the key theme throughout the series because the overarching concern of Xena, the Warrior Princess is whether or not she can experience redemption for her evil sins. Her travels reflect her quest for redemption. Xena usually credits her salvation experiences to Hercules and her travel partner, Gabrielle; who she says keeps her on that the path of being good.
I see some signifying and scripturalization in this way. Hercules, the good, merciful and all powerful person could have punished her but instead he shows mercy. When she asks why he didn’t kill her, he tells her, “Killing doesn’t make you a warrior and I think you know that.” He tells her this in the Hercules episode, ‘The Gauntlet’. Hercules, who has the influence and power, I guess could be signified as both “God” and Jesus in the series. (Jesus as the Christ, like Hercules, was a half god while his mother was mortal. God was the father of Jesus and Zeus was the father of Hercules, this half-god journeys around ancient Greece saving, redeeming o people, and giving evil people second chances, as well as, helping the poor, women, orphans, widows, homeless and etc. In essence, Hercules in this show is a type of Christ character. God and human intervening in the lives of humanity.
Jesus, this half-god, yes I believe that Jesus is a half god if we believe that God is his father and Mary is his mother, travels around ancient Palestine is comparable to the series’ Hercules. The only difference was that Jesus could raise the dead and heal the sick. Hercules saved and redeemed Xena. He basically told her to go and sin anymore. As he did on show, he asked her if everything was over after they joined forces and defeated her army. Him asking this question was his way of making sure that he no longer has to fight her. Gabrielle, a village girl and an amazon princess is Xena’s friend; although there is innuendo that they were lovers and that depends on who you ask, is another Jesus like character. She keeps Xena on the straight and narrow. Holding on to Gabrielle’s goodness keep her on the path of good. We hold on to Jesus’ goodness to keep us on the straight and narrow of a sinless life.
“Selfless, pure Love is the only divine perfection we have in this world. It is the greatest power one can possess.”―Eli in “The Ides of March”
Xena, the Warrior Princess is filled with signifying and scripturalization. In season five of the series, there is an increased presence of the scripturalization and signifying of the Christian story. In the second of half of season four, they meet a man with powers called Eli who has not yet come into those powers. Eli is the Avatar of the God of the Ultimate Way. Eli is the Jesus like figure going about healing people and speaking of peace. At the end of season four Xena and Gabrielle are crucified by the Romans. Eli is grief stricken. Joxer and Amarice, Xena’s friends get Gabrielle and Xena’s bodies. While Eli goes into prayer and after he has prayed to his god, he raises Xena and Gabrielle from the dead. This story is very similar to that of the Lazarus story, Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies and Jesus is grief stricken, however he goes into prayer and then raises his friend from the dead. Eli talks about a new world order coming, a time without the gods, a time where there will be peace. Jesus also speaks about a new world order, a new kingdom. Jesus says he is the son of God, Eli says his god is greater than the Greek Gods. Jesus angered the Romans, Eli angered the Greek Gods, Ares the god of war killed Eli and the Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus crucified, both Eli and Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to their disciples. Both Jesus and Eli were challenging systems. Eli the oppressive reign of the Greek gods and Jesus the oppressive reign of the Romans. Eli is Aramaic/Hebrew for “my God”.
The show evolves especially in the latter portion of season four and later seasons five and six with strong similarities being drawn between Eli and Christ. The similarities are obvious for those of us who are Christian and who watched the show. For example, his teachings of non-violence, his powers of raising the dead which can be seen in the episode entitled “Fallen Angel”, his casting out of demons seen in the episode, “ Devi”and the Christian fish symbol which is seen in episodes. “Seeds of Faith”, as well as,”Eve” and “Heart of Darkness.
Another way the series scripturalized the Christian story is its storied use of the “immaculate conception.” The show scripturalized this story line twice in its delivery. Both Gabrielle and Xena got pregnant by the hand of an angel or a god without having sex, in essence the story of Mary. Xena a few months after she was resurrected by Eli, found that she was pregnant and she knew that she did not have sex in a while, Gabrielle thought it was either Hercules or Ares the god of war, the two male loves of her life. Xena’s baby, Eve was conceived by Immaculate Conception. The angel Calisto announces it to her. Mary who was to be wed to Joseph and the angel, Gabriel announced that she was carrying baby Jesus. Both Eve and Jesus were said at the time of their birth to bring greatness to the world. Eve was said to bring about the twilight of the gods and bring a new world order. Jesus was said to be great and would inherit God’s kingdom. Both Eve and Jesus’ greatness were foretold by divine beings. Jesus by the angel Gabriel and Eve by the Fates.
Another way the show uses signification and scripturalization, Eve is not only a Christ figure, and she is also a Paul figure, she has two names. Paul never met Jesus, Eve never met Eli, however Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus and Eve as Livia persecuted the Elijians. Paul met Jesus during his Damascus experience and Eve met Eli when she was having her visions. Eve converted to the way of Eli and Paul converted to the way of Christ. Eve spreading the message of Eli, and Paul spreading the message of Jesus. A conversation between Eli and Gabrielle signifies and scripturalizes the conversation in Matthew 18:21-22,
Gabrielle: “What is the truth?”
Eli: “So you really wanna know?”
Eli: “It’s life. We must revere it wherever we find it. To bring peace to this world, I have to teach mankind a reverence for life.”
Gabrielle: “So, if someone were to walk up to you and knock you down…”
Eli: “Then I’d get up.”
Gabrielle: “But if they knocked you down again?”
Eli: “Then I’d get up again, if I could. But under no circumstances would I fight back. If I did, I would simply be perpetuating the cycle of violence that has ravaged the earth for centuries. That cycle has to be broken, Gabrielle, and the truth is that it can only be done through non-violence.
I raise the following question in conclusion, Why did the creators and artists of the show choose to signify and scripturalize the Christian narrative in the show? My asserted belief is that the creators of the show borrowed so as to show the bigger picture that everything in our cultural understanding is not as narrow as it seems. Its use allowed them to tap into some larger source of understanding and develop or establish cross cultural meanings for the presenter and those who are viewing. There are universal appreciations of good and evil, right and wrong and how people can be supported or hampered by either. The bigger picture I believe that the creators and authors did by signifying and scripturlization is that the Christ and the Christian story is bigger than Christianity, that the notion of good and evil is not only core to the Christian story. That the story of redemption and saving is not a Christian story but a universal storyline no matter the culture. Although we are both good and bad, all of us are worth saving and all of us have some Christ characteristics in us c.f Eve. The creators of the show used the Christian story and Christ like figures to say that there is always a type of oppression we must fight whether it be the Greek Gods , the Romans and/or the Jewish priests. There is this sense that you must lead your people into freedom no matter the cost to you c.f Jesus and Eli.
Jr., Henry Louis Gates. The Signifying Monkey: a Theory of African American Literary Criticism. 25 ed. publication place: Oxford University Press, 2014.
1 Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: a Theory of African American Literary Criticism, 25 ed. (publication place: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4.
2 Lynne Darden., “Scripturalizing Revelation: An African American Postcolonial Reading of Empire.” Definition of Terms, Charles Copher Lecture 2016.