Though hardly accepted as an art from, video games have a unique story telling format that enables them to push concepts on the player in ways that few other mediums allow. Included in Rockstar Games’ 2010 opus Red Dead Redemption, is a baffling set of optional missions where the player encounters a mysterious stranger who seems to know more than he lets on. The stranger tasks John Marston (the player) with attending to various tests of seemingly black and white morality. They amount to nothing more than encouraging or discouraging a man to cheat on his wife and choosing to offer an old nun some money to restore a man’s faith. As you progress further into the game, you begin to question the motives and nature of the stranger and his odd quests for the player. The stranger intentionally avoids revealing his name or motive to the player and eventually begins to take on almost supernatural levels of knowledge about Marston’s past.
Speculation after the game’s release has run wild in regards to just who or what the stranger is supposed to represent in relation to the rest of the game. Many players come to the conclusion that the stranger simply represents a rudimentary form of a Christian God due to his specially worded responses to Marston’s queries but the game never makes the characters intentions clear. The stranger clearly possesses otherworldly powers (eg. he isn’t affected by bullets) but he is cast as a character who makes decisions that are decidedly neutral to the player. The player, in fact, is left with the choice of whether or not he should choose to make a good or evil decision based exclusively on the player’s impulses. Regardless of just what the stranger is supposed to represent in the game world, the stranger remains a popular enigma and a fascinating look into the possibilities of modern game design.
Inarguably one of the most well written and influential shows to emerge in the late 20th century, the Simpsons has a unique place in pop culture. The show’s place is well earned because the Simpsons, regardless of its crudely animated and controversial beginnings, is one of the most profound shows ever made. Although many shows have lampooned the low hanging fruit of religion and the easier to make fun of aspects of a Christian God, only the Simpsons has walked the fine line of ensuring that commentary on religion feels impartial and never preachy. In the episode Homer the Heretic, one of the show’s most famous, the viewer follows Homer as he falls out of attendance at his local church. Predictably the results of this include the townsfolk up in arms about the safety of Homer’s very soul. Upon falling asleep in his bed, Homer experiences a vivid dream where he encounters God himself.
At first glance, God is intimidating and powerful, tearing the roof off of Homer’s home and accusing him of unfaithfulness. But as soon as Homer decides to question God’s integrity in accusing him, God’s size greatly diminishes and suddenly Homer finds himself holding casual discussion with God. God quickly becomes an affable, almost human character who sympathizes with Homer’s comparatively banal interests about football. Certain actions of God’s are revealed to be based in petty frustration with humans in Homer’s life. As Homer seemingly strikes a deal with God, Homer awakens reinvigorated in his passion for avoiding church. Also of note in the show’s portrayal of God is the fact that God’s actual face is never revealed in the episode, leaving the powerful figure a faceless force who is remarkably mighty but still human in nature. Finally, it has often been noted that God is always portrayed as having five fingers instead of four. One might think that this is a sly philosophical remark on the relationship between God and man but the showrunner at the time has admitted that this, one of the show’s most popular mysteries, was simply a production error.
Formed as a one off experiment in 2003, Montreal’s Arcade Fire has gone on to become one of the preeminent artistic successes in popular music. Their music is at once cataclysmic and uplifting, always delivered with an unwavering conviction by lead singer Win Butler. No better is the band’s immense power demonstrated than on the track Intervention from the band’s 2007 album Neon Bible. Opening with a cacophonous organ line highly reminiscent of those heard in traditional church services, Intervention describes Win Butler’s own disenfranchisement with organized religion and the evil he believes it represents. The song describes what Butler believes is the silliness and inherent evil in raising a child under the concepts of organized religion. As the song progresses, Butler describes a young follower of religion as a “soldier fighting on their side,” unable to discern just what they are really fighting for. He moves on to criticize the emphasis on money that religion seems to adopt and how misplaced this idol worship is in the context of the religion.
Butler moves on to comment on the place of the overwhelming fear that he believes is used to keep younger members of religion in place and complacent. Clearly a commentary on Butler’s own experiences as a child growing up as a part of something so intimidatingly large that fear is the only logical response, Butler urges younger listeners who can empathize to look outside of their current situation. Butler’s purpose in the song is to alert both his younger audience as well as his more mature audience to take sight of the overwhelming and corrosive presence of organized religion on people’s lives (and urges them to flee). Butler never makes any concessions in the song, organized religion is described as exclusively an evil force, not once does he praise it.
Formed on a lark by the childhood friends Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, Pavement helped shape the independent rock scene more than any other band in the 90’s. Heavily distorted but remarkably catchy tunes, formed the bands trademark repertoire of hummable but cryptic rock songs. Like many bands in the 90’s indie rock scene, Pavement wrote songs that were witty, beguiling, and never ready to show the band’s true intentions or beliefs. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Pavement’s famous b-side Give It a Day from their Pacific Trim EP. The song delves into a topic rarely if ever addressed in the typically ironic indie rock scene, Cotton Mather and Puritanism.
The song deals with the early spread of Puritanism during the 17th century in North America. Although on first listen, the song appears to be a simple retelling of the popularization of Puritanism, the lyrics cast the Mather family as characters crucial in the horrors committed at the Salem Witch Trials. This could simply be viewed as misinformation on the part of Stephen Malkmus, the principal songwriter, but Malkmus is a history major and these changes are almost certainly deliberate. Moving into the second section of the song, Malkmus comments that Puritan traits have seeped into the world we live in today. He believes that although pop culture has clearly moved beyond the older beliefs found in Puritanism, ultimately the hysteria surrounding Puritanism has faded. Surely it seems that Pavement has something to say with a song with a topic as unique as Puritanism but ultimately it must be worth noting that Pavement wrote this song simply out of necessity. The song was recorded during a recording session where the rest of the backing band dropped out, Pavement simply didn’t want to lose their downpayment. Give It a Day provides a fascinating insight into the band’s off the cuff opinions about history but in the end the listener is left wondering if the band was even being serious.
Link to the Song: http://grooveshark.com/s/Rebel+Jew/2qrkV8?src=5
Although forever linked with independent rock pioneers, Pavement, David Berman and the Silver Jews remained an important, critically hailed force in rock and roll through the 90’s. Featuring famed singer songwriter Stephen Malkmus and famed poet David Berman, the Silver Jews wrote dense, mysterious, and most importantly sarcastic rock songs. On their first album Starlite Walker, Berman produced one of the band’s most famous and important songs, Rebel Jew, a faux country tune that mocks the feigned religiosity of country musicians. The song begins with Berman’s monotone wail declaring his alleged close relationship with Jesus and he urges the listener to “let him in.”
This is a commentary on the Berman’s oft perceived notion of evangelical Christianity that permeates country rock music. Moving into the rest of the song, Berman replaces the name of Jesus while maintaining the same rhyme scheme and similar lyrical content. He speaks about his affinity for Texas and the very important role that the state plays in his life. This mocks the disingenuous use of invoking images of Jesus in traditional pop music. Finally, Berman arrives at the end of the song and replaces Jesus in the song a final time with a previously unmentioned character named Michele. This is another criticism of the flippancy required to mention Jesus in a song that doesn’t entirely have its intentions set on discussing him. This final detail is Berman’s masterstroke on Rebel Jew. In the process of just one song, Berman has transformed what initially seems like an impassioned cry for religious devotion into a cheap sounding, southern patriotic anthem and then finally into a worthless love song about a girl who was never even mentioned in the rest of the song. Though this is only one interpretation of the song, Berman’s monotone drawl leaves nothing about his intentions clear.
Short Story: http://www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/3369/
Forever ingrained as not just one of the Russia’s most important writers but as one of the most important writers the world has ever seen, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s body of work is some of the most important in literature. Although a well known Eastern Orthodox Christian, his short story, The Little Boy at the Savior’s Christmas Tree (originally published as The Little Orphan in 1887) casts an interesting light on Dostoevsky’s relationship with religion. Taking place in the city on Christmas Eve, the story follows a young child who awakens in a cellar to discover that his mother has died in the intense cold of the night. As the story progresses, the young boy, in an effort to find a home to enjoy Christmas in, collapses behind a pile of wood. As he looks up he notices the spectral figure of Jesus sitting at the head of an enormous Christmas tree, surrounded by orphans and his dead mother. Suddenly jarring the reader away from the fantastical imagery, Dostoevsky ends his story with the statement that the child had died in the cold of the night.
Originally written as a response to Russian utopian theses of the time, the story is reflective of Dostoevsky’s notion that true utopia is unattainable in the world. But what is most fascinating is the way that the story draws religion, Dostoevsky’s own, into question. The child experiences utopian ways of life only at the end of his life. And although one could argue that this is simply reflective of the idea of a Christian heaven, Dostoevsky includes the chilling (no pun intended) ending that reveals only that the child has died a horrible death. Instead of leaving the reader with a hopeful vision of a utopian Heaven, Dostoevsky shows a child who believes he experiences time with Jesus but is abruptly ripped away from him and left in the unforgiving cold.