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Female Christ figures

Thursday, 29 July 2021  | Steve Taylor



Acts of remarkable grace occur in the strangest places. Cousins, a movie based on the book by New Zealand Māori author, Patricia Grace, offers a moving portrayal of three Māori women growing up in Aotearoa. Māta is stolen, forced adoption stripping away her connections to land and family. Makareta becomes a lawyer, prosecuting the legal justice made law through Te Tiriti (New Zealand’s founding document is an agreement in two languages - the Treaty of Waitangi in English and Te Tiriti in Māori). All the time, she searches for Māta. Missy remains near the family marae (Māori cultural and social meeting house), protecting the whenua (land of her ancestors). In the decades following World War 2, they experienced the ongoing destructive impact of colonisation in different ways. Amid their struggle comes an astonishing moment of at-one-ment, through which a breaking community is restored.

Growing up on the whenua, Makareta refuses an arranged marriage. On the wedding day, Missy discovers her jumping into a car, fleeing to pursue her studies in law. In a communal culture, with the groom waiting outside the marae, Makareta’s departure will bring immense shame. Missy decides to take her place. This sudden and creative act of unprompted grace fulfils cultural obligations. Shame is removed. New relationships are woven. In this act of atoning restoration, Missy becomes a female Christ figure.

Some movies portray the gospel story of the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. Think Cecile B. DeMille’s The King of Kings in 1927, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel according to Saint Matthew in 1964 and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in 2004. Indeed, the first ever film was a rendering of The Passion Play of Oberammergau. Thirty-nine versions of the Christ story had been produced by 1927. The aim of these Jesus movies is historical accuracy.

Other films portray Christ figures. These movies portray human stories yet offer links and parallels to the work of Christ. Lloyd Baugh calls this the arena of analogy. Such films work like the parables of Jesus. Watched on a literal level, they offer brief narratives of human experience. But when interpreted metaphorically, they ‘explode with theological and christological significance’ (Imaging the Divine, 1997, 109). Hence Cousins. On the surface, it is telling an indigenous story of the experience of colonisation. Yet in the area of metaphor, it explodes with christological significance. Missy’s choice, acting to remove shame, echoes parables like the prodigal son and the waiting father in Luke 15:11-32.

In Luke 15, the son's choices shame not only his father and family but also the entire village. An inheritance has been lost to the Gentiles. Kenneth Bailey writes of how the prodigal will be mocked, taunted, possibly even physically abused (Poet and Peasant, 1997 reprint, 181). Yet, in Luke 15:20, when the son was ‘still a long way off’ - before the village can see and judge - the father acts.

Aristotle wrote that ‘Great men never run in public’. Yet the father of Luke 15, like Missy in Cousins, acts in public. To run, in the flowing robes of first-century society, is humiliating (Luke 15:20). The hitching up of robes and showing off of legs risks exposing intimate body parts. The father's act, so outrageous, draws a crowd. The run of shame is followed by a public kiss. In first-century Palestine, when broken relationships are restored, a kiss between those involved is a sign of reconciliation.

The result is feasting. The work of removing shame deserves a party. Feasts in Scripture are signs of God’s goodness. The Kin_dom of God is a feast in Matthew 8:11 and 22:1-14, while in Revelation 19:9 ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb’.

The feasting that follows Missy’s wedding in Cousins reminds me of Tom Wright’s careful exegetical work of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in Luke 24:36-43. Wright examines the way Jesus restores the shame that results from the first recorded human meal in Genesis 3. As a result of Adam and Eve’s ‘first breakfast’, relationships between God and human people are broken.

The resurrected Jesus, as a new Adam, offers another ‘first breakfast’. Bread and fish are a resurrection feast announcing that a broken community is now restored.

In the actions of Missy, we see a parable of shame removed and relationships restored. What is instructive is that a female character is enacting this theological and christological work. Arnfridur Gudmundsdottir, a theologian at the University of Iceland, writes: ‘Given the harmful effects that the Christian tradition’s message of self-sacrificial love has often had on women, women today need true female Christ-figures .... Female Christ-figures in films incarnate the image of God’ (Studia Theologica 56, 1, 2002, 39). In Missy, I catch a glimpse of the incarnate Christ.

The act of a female is revelatory. It challenges the male saviour complex so embedded in patriarchal thinking. In Cousins, through Missy, I find new ways to think Christologically about sexuality and gender.

 

Steve Taylor is author of First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God (2019) and Built for Change: A practical theology of innovation and collaboration in leadership (2016). As a public scholar, he serves the church in mission and innovation. For more see #MissionForAChange and www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.


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