Car, Jesus, and Punk Rock

Kendrick Jacobs is a senior from Jupiter, Florida majoring in Religious Studies. The following blog post was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Humanities.

Repo Man at first glance comes off as being another cult classic film. It captures a moment in American history you can’t read in a book or put your finger on, but if you asked someone who grew up in that time they would know exactly what you were talking about. The strange atmosphere put on by the satirical consumerism, dark comedy, and punk vibe that the movie has makes most people watch it and leave thinking nothing more than how weird it was to watch. But, underneath that tough punk exterior hides deep seated symbolism for religion. You would probably think it crazy if someone said it to you, but taking a closer look can really make this movie shine brighter than it already does.

The first religious symbolism in the movie is found in the movie’s theme itself, repo man. A repo man is not the kind of person you want to see ever in your life. They come and take your car from you when you least expect it. As shown in the movie, they break into, sneak into, and sometimes outright steal cars in order to get their job done. Now, with this image in mind, jump to what tax collectors were in Jesus’ time. Tax collectors would steal money and lie about how much was due in order to get a larger commission off of what they collected. When asked why he ate with tax collectors, Jesus responded by stating that he was sent not for the righteous, but for the sinners in Mathew 9:12. This same concept is seen in the movie because the repo men are able to drive the glowing car at the end of the movie without any protective gear or any special procedures. They simply get in the car and drive it off. This scene plays a vital role in the nuanced religious aspects of the movie because the federal agents wearing protective gear, and whose job it is to retrieve the car, are killed in the process of attempting to get close to it. The agents represent the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’s time. Throughout the movie, the federal agents attempt to take the car by any means necessary but are thwarted by the repo men in the end.

Another aspect of symbolism is the rebirth symbolized in the movie. Although comedic in nature, the scene where the repo men go to Bud’s hospital bed give us a clear example of rebirth in the movie. Upon opening the door, the gang are greeted with an empty bed. The phrase “He is risen” is exclaimed by someone and they leave to find him. Bud’s hospital scene could go one of two ways in terms of symbolism. The obvious is that it is a jest at the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the opening of his tomb. This example would be most plausible because the exact same phrase is uttered in both scenarios. Also, Bud is the first to successfully drive the car without any need for extra equipment. After his driving, the car is able to glow and fly by some divine manner. One way of looking at this is to say that in the same way Jesus’s sacrifice was a way for others to follow him into heaven, Bud’s actions were a way for the repo men to amount to more in their society. Through his “resurrection” he was able to leave behind a new meaning for the repo men. No longer were they the lowly car stealing scumbags that society had seen them as, but instead, they had transcended to a place where the federal government agents were looking to them for guidance. Another way his death can be seen as symbolism is through the resurrection of Lazarus. The reasoning for this is because Bud is definitely not a saint nor is he the “Jesus” of the repo men.

Overall, Repo Man was a great movie that combined comedy with grinding pop culture to weave a time and place that many would consider real fiction in a way. Through the clever placement of symbolism, many religious properties come through which make the repo men look like the disciples of Jesus. Coming back to this symbolism, the car in the movie can be seen as a sort of Holy Ghost left behind by Bud for the other repo men, or maybe even the Kingdom of Heaven itself. This final analysis comes from the idea that Jesus taught in Mark that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. The underlying theme in Repo Man might just be this: The restructuring and reordering of power that leads to those hated by society, be they a punk or an unwanted car repo man, being put on top to the dismay of the higher ups.

REL 360 Responds to C.R.A.Z.Y

Matthew McCullough is a recent graduate from the University of Alabama with a degree in Religious Studies and Political Science. He is excited to be staying on campus to join the new Religion in Culture MA program in the Spring. The following blog post was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Humanities. Continue reading

The REL Journal Group: Reading Amid the (phenomenological) Lines

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The following exchange between Prof. Nathan Loewen and Emma Gibson, a graduate student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of REL’s monthly journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Nathan: So, Emma, you have a background in the study of philosophy and you came to the religious studies department at UA in order to complete an MA in religious studies. Your first semester at UA has included plenty of coursework on critical theory as well as an independent study with me focused on major publications from Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. The faculty and graduate students in our department convened for our journal group for its third and time in order to discuss the article that you chose. What went into your decision to have us read and discuss an article from 1985?

Emma: In the article, John Caputo outlines the moves Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida make to transgress Western metaphysics. I chose the article in order to engage with the department about my interests in phenomenology. I first encountered phenomenology my freshman year of undergraduate studies in my 20th century philosophy course and was drawn into the way these thinkers considered the subject and experience rather than assuming logic, observations, and reason were sufficient in the quest for knowledge and truth. Edmund Husserl pioneered phenomenology when he argued that our own perceptions precede the object. Our perceptions (or, phenomenological experiences) come together to construct our “ideas” of objects and always refer back to other experiences and instances. If this is the case, then we would have to conclude that our knowledge of the world is primarily non-empirical. Approaches that emphasize an external, objective world are incapable of producing a complete and true narrative of reality. Phenomenology is a distinct field in philosophy, and its methods are applied differently in religious studies. While philosophy considers phenomenological experiences as a continual processes that call for a restructuring of the way we make sense of the world, religious studies uses phenomenology to argue that God can only be known by one who has encountered religious experience. In recent weeks I also recently read Caputo’s book, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derridaso this article covered several thinkers pertinent to my research interests.

NL: What does it mean to “transgress Western metaphysics”? Is that the business kind of thing that scholars of religion should be doing?

EG: Western metaphysics refers to a set of philosophical arguments about the nature of reality as fixed and predictable. That view contested by a reading of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida. Each argues reality is constructed from a multiplicity of phenomenological experiences, we are unable to form a linear, singular narrative about objects and ideas. We are always already becoming and this means that we should avoid imposing structures on thought that mask the unknowable and unpredictable qualities of existence. I have thought a lot about disrupting assumed structures and categories, which is exactly what “transgressing Western metaphysics” seeks to accomplish. I figured that an article about “transgressing” Western metaphysics would be relevant to my professors and cohort since they also use methods and theories that critique attempts to rigidly categorize and systematize concepts such as religion. I believe it is useful to discuss how the phenomenological approach considers the experience of the subject such undertakings.

NL: The article makes an argument that Heidegger has a “creative misunderstanding” about Nietzsche. The group was surprised by this claim, and we discussed it at some length. What did you see as the issue in terms of how postmodern, critical theorists work with the texts they choose to read?

EG: I enjoyed how the group debated the relationship of the philosopher to the text; Should we consider the intentions of the author or only focus on the text itself? Are we ever able to have the “correct” interpretation of an author’s work? After discussing these questions at length, I believe that Caputo’s claim that Heidegger “misread” another thinker is a rhetorical strategy to validate his argument. On the one hand, if we accept that the author is dead and there can be multiple readings of a text then we might fall into relativism. On the other, making claims that suggest one person is able to correctly interpret an author brings up questions of who has the authority to make these kinds of statements. I do not have answer to how postmodern thinkers should approach the texts they read, but I do think it would be beneficial to consider what it means to misread something.

NL: Another point of vibrant discussion was a consideration of how the article used the terms “abyss” and “mystery” in order to introduce a reference to Meister Eckhart in the article’s conclusion. Would you summarize what developed in our talk as a common concern?

EG: There was debate over whether Caputo was successful in his reading of Derrida’s abyss. This is a question that I am actually going to examine in my final paper for my independent study. Using terms like “mystery” and mentioning Eckhart was a red flag for some people in the room. Was this a signals of a theological interpretation of Derrida’s abyss that actually ontoglogized it? Isn’t this something Derrida actively tried to avoid? The idea of breaking-through metaphysics in order to reach the abyss suggests that there is only one move towards the unknown. I would argue that Eckhart’s breaking-through does not necessarily have to assume a theistic nature in the context of Caputo’s argument as long as the breaking through is continuous. There is no one event of transgression, but, rather a continuous process. This is something that I will keep thinking about!

NL: Thanks for sharing your reflections on our journal group discussion. I think it was really useful for everyone. Where do you plan to go from here? Is this journal article going to form a part of how you complete your projects this semester?

EG: I am actually going to compare Caputo’s article with the paper presented by Craig Martin at the 2017 NAASR meetings to think about interpretations of Derrida’s abyss. There was also discussion about the differences between phenomenology in the field of religion and phenomenology in the field of religious studies that I found compelling. It is a topic I am now considering for my Master’s thesis. My hope is to identify where the two fields differ in terms of interpreting concepts like “abyss” and “anxiety” and what this means for scholars in each discipline.

Road Trip

Early Monday morning my advisor, Russell McCutcheon, and I traveled down the road and across the state line to visit Mississippi State University. Since my acceptance into the Religious Studies department at the University of Alabama’s new M.A. program a few months ago, Russell and I have been discussing the possibility of having Dr. Mary Rebecca Read-Wahidi serve on my advisory committee. Dr. Read-Wahidi attended the University of Alabama for her Ph.D. in Anthropology and was advised under Dr. Bill Dressler who developed the Cultural Consonance Model (and she also TA’ed in Religious Studies and, in fact, still teaches online for the department). She also continues to work closely with the Graduate Director for the Anthropology department, Dr. Jason DeCaro (You can read a brief response to their most recent journal article from Russell and I here.)

Dr. Read-Wahidi is currently working on multiple research projects at the Social Sciences Research Center at MSU, but her work on the Catholic veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe was what initially suggested that she would be a great fit for my interest in studying migration and identity formation in Spanish-speaking communities in the US. Specifically, in her dissertation, Dr. Read-Wahidi studied how religious devotion can buffer the negative physiological effects induced by stress related to migration.

In addition to Dr. Read-Wahidi, there are a variety of interdisciplinary scholars at the SSRC in Starkville who are all working on individual as well as collaborative research projects. At one point during our trip we were introduced, by Dr. Read-Wahidi, to Dr. Arthur Cosby, who serves as the Director of the Center but in the past has also served as a professor of sociology at institutions such as Louisiana State University; his research is based around something he has termed ‘social climate’ model (learn more about his work here).

So the work being done at the SSRC is very much in line with the kind of work that I can imagine myself continuing to do in the future, but I’ll keep you posted on that.