Cloning Enchantment: Jesuses After Climate Change

When I found one comic with a Jesus that scientists had cloned from relics, I chuckled at its clever premise. When I found the third Jesus Clone comic, I realized that something had to be going on. As a biblical scholar with professional interests in comics, I had come upon one of those ideas that will not let me go.[1]

I find that Jesus Clone reflects an anxiety about human control and biblical promises in a underexplored corner of U.S. popular culture. There are other thinkers who linger over questions about the worth of popular culture and comics in addressing such ideas, but I am convinced that these comics, and others like them, offer insight into how people conceive of and combine elements from science, religion, and imagination to make sense of our world. These comics bring emotion and narrative to our effort to sort our identity as a species.

Human beings are having a geological effect on the planet we inhabit.[2] Once we allow ourselves to conceive of our role in climate change, we humans have to make sense of the control we have on the planet. Control that was once seen as solely divine is all too human, often with stomach-churning consequences. We have agency, but what have we done with it? What's there to do when science pronounces planetary doom and religion is seen to falter when asked to answer? Why, combine the two! Bring the Second Coming with Science!

Punk Rock Jesus, Loaded Bible: The Jesus vs. Vampires Gospels and Escape from Jesus Island are the three comics I have found (so far!) that star Jesus Clone. The character of Jesus and the medium of comics often provide a cutting-edge window into subcultures in U.S. national feeling—comics are easy to produce, can be made without much editorial control, and offer a visual as well as textual outlet. It is important to say at the outset that these comics are not necessarily friendly to the idea of Jesus as a religious or devotional figure. Jesus Clone is not Jesus Christ. Jesus Clone is Jesus Christ as run through a non-religious, popular, and gleefully distorted vision of a religious character. This Jesus provides a sort of "enchantment" in a secular world. This "enchantment" is a view of the sublime that takes in the supernatural without analysis or even real judgment.[3] These comics struggle with our redefined place in the natural and divine order and find a need for enchantment. They try to find a naïveté redefined in terms characterized by hybridized science and religion.[4]

Jesus Clone reveals a picture of humanity that is distressingly violent, troubled by its enormous power, and under tremendous pressure to reconcile what have traditionally been compartmentalized seats of knowledge. What makes all of these comics so particularly fascinating is the way they so naturally seem to combine elements: we get a second coming with clones, the earth or humanity is disintegrating by its own folly, and in desperation, science and religion join forces. Independently, all three books have found the enchantment they wanted in Jesus, powered by science they rely on but in no way trust.

In each of the comics treated briefly here, people with an array of intentions collect Jesus's genetic material from sacred relics and make a Jesus clone (or clones). They control not only nature, in the sense that they are able to create human life by technical means, but they also harness the divine for profit, propaganda, or protection. They are first excellent scientists, able to manipulate biology adeptly. But, like other humans in the age of geological shifts caused by humans, they not only effect change in their immediate project, they have an impact on their environment, even at a cosmic level.

In Sean Murphy's Punk Rock Jesus, a greedy entertainment corporation convinces a scientist to clone Jesus in order to have him star in a television reality series for a Christianity-crazed U.S. public.[5] The network selects a blonde, teenage virgin in a rigged American Idol-style competition to carry the clone to term. After a network executive kills the mother, teenaged "Chris" the Christ joins a punk band in an effort to save the world from religion. He is raucous, and his world is a violent one, plagued by angry and abusive protesters from all sides.

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Image from "Punk Rock Jesus," by Sean Murphy

This Jesus is cloned for two reasons: corporate greed that exploits a cartoonish Christian fervor, and world-saving scientific goals. The OPHIS network (Greek for "serpent") creates a reality show, the "J2 Project" that broadcasts Chris's every moment from birth. The network's only clear goal is to draw viewers, and it works; by issue #2, they are the biggest show in history. But, Dr. Rachel Epstein, the Nobel-prize-winning Jewish scientist they enlist to clone Jesus wants to take the funding OPHIS offers to engineer new types of CO2-digesting algae to combat global warming. She explicitly says: "My main goal is to protect the environment, and ultimately humanity." She understands the controversy but works for a noble cause, saving the world from destruction with more human intervention. The book both takes its social goals seriously and takes religious people as one-dimensional, stereotypical, and often ridiculous.[6] It loves Jesus—especially the more radical element—but has no time for Christians.

The clone-maker in this story is an environmentally responsible scientist backed by a shadowy entertainment corporation. The veracity of the entire experiment is questionable by the end of the series: Dr. Epstein reveals that the DNA that OPHIS supposedly obtained from the Shroud of Turin through an undisclosed Vatican deal was only a few days old, not 2,000 years old at all. Perhaps Dr. Epstein's algae will save the planet, but the book ends with a violent act of revenge rather than checking in on the planet or Epstein's progress.

An undercurrent in the book is the actual rising oceans—Chris is born in 2019 and by the time he is fifteen, lower Manhattan is already flooded. Underlying the tremendous power exercised by OPHIS and Dr. Epstein is helplessness at the fate of the planet. Even though they can make a divine presence, their flaws keep it from functioning in the broken world.

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Image from "Loaded Bible," by Tim Seeley

My second Jesus Clone is the star of the colorful Loaded Bible: Jesus vs. Vampires.[7] This six-issue, one-shot series is done in a high-color style reminiscent of a hyper-violent Saturday morning cartoon. According to the opening of the comic, the religious conservatism of the United States increased dramatically after 9-11 and then at a particularly sensitive moment in the political climate, it became common knowledge that vampires were real and could be defeated by Christian symbols. This revelation causes people to cling even more tightly to the church and integrate more Catholic-Christian religious elements into government. Eventually, humans react with nuclear force and destroy the planet's atmosphere. Now hunkered within domed cities, particularly New Vatican City, the humans are cheered by the arrival of the Messiah. He's skilled in vampire brawling, looks great in armor and has all the Jesus powers one would need in an apocalypse: a miraculous healing touch, a Zen-calm demeanor, and holy-water saliva. Yes, you read that right: holy-water saliva.

This Jesus is devastated when he finds out he is only one of an army of Jesus clones. But, for the reader, the question really is, why hasn't the government's "council of bishops" loosed the Jesus Clone army before? It is because Jesus is cloned here (from a casually mentioned "foreskin and some blood") to both be a weapon against vampires and a unifying force for the beleaguered human/church forces. His fighting serves immediate tactical needs and is filmed to serve the needs of propaganda. He is cloned by the shadowy council of bishops, backed by a separate group of scientists the reader never sees.

Loaded Bible shows how a hybrid religion powered by science that uses religious tools is responsible for the environmental breakdown of the planet. The glut of clones serves to highlight the way the technique has exceeded the council's control. While the Jesus Clone army is initially successful in quelling a human uprising, the book ends with an ominous sense of their next move. One Jesus is trouble, but cloning means that it is easy to over-do your Jesuses.

The vast number of clones in Shawn French and Mortimer Glum's horrific Escape from Jesus Island series are a result of corporate scientists' fumbling to bring back Jesus but creating a grotesque menagerie of evil mutants in the process.[8] RenGen Corp, a corporate research giant, has extracted "a drop of blood from a petrified portion of The Cross" and given their scientists the task of recreating Jesus. They want a new Jesus in order to sell the reborn Christ's healing services at an exclusive resort hospital. They eventually succeed, but only after creating a legion of near-Jesus mutants and Jesus's monstrous twin brother, the Anti-Christ. This Jesus has a genetic defect that forces him to rely on his evil twin brother for regular healing. The escape that the book's plot follows is the conflict between RenGen, Jesus, Damien with a band of mutant followers, and a Vatican Black Ops team sent by the grotesque cancer-riddled Pope to bring him Jesus and his healing at any cost. The actual Jesus Clone is a mild-mannered healer who serves more as a trigger than an active character in the story so far.

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Image from "Escape from Jesus Island," by Shawn French

Despite a sneering disdain for Christianity, particularly Catholicism, in this book the Bible holds authority that French wants to exploit. Regular chapter-verse citations show how important the religious element is, even in a world where science holds the keys to religious power. The movie-style poster has the first half of Deut 32:42 quoted as a tagline: "I will make my arrows drunk with blood and my sword shall devour flesh." The line has little to do with the poster; I assume the attraction came from the key words "drunk," "blood," and "devour flesh." The poetic opening of one draft of the book quotes Rev 6:15-17 at length in voice-over. The relationship to the story is not direct, but more tonal. Revelation is the obvious favorite for quotations. A promotional poster (from a Good Friday event) has Rev 6:7-8 quoted under a picture of Jesus in captivity: "And I did look to behold a pale horse and the name of him who sat on it was Death." The mixed-Revelation-graffiti on Jesus's wall seems to have more to do with the picture, although it is not cited chapter and verse like the other quotations: "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last" and "and he that liveth was dead behold! I am alive for evermore [sic] and have the keys of hell and of death" (Rev 22:13; Rev 1:18). French indulges a particular U.S. metal-head niche market that loves to use liturgical decorations to lend an extra level of subversion to their carefully constructed iconoclastic image. The Bible holds authority that French wants to exploit.

All three books share a post-apocalyptic feel—this is the Second Coming, even if it is by human means. Humans are acting alone to bring the divine nature to a broken world. Jesus Clone—while neither fully human nor fully divine—shows the powerful and helpless position of humans in relation to the divine.

These Jesus Clone societies are troubled by their enormous power. In the age of climate change, humans are out of control. We have geologically changed the planet without understanding even exactly when it started—was it our first ancient farms, the Industrial Revolution, or something as recent as the twentieth century? Here, humans make Jesus without really understanding what they might do: start a worldwide revolution, unleash a righteous Jesus clone-army, or cover themselves in homicidal mutant horrors.

These comics can teach people with more traditional or reverent visions of Jesus—myself included—much about the flexibility of the idea of Jesus. These Jesus Clones also show a society under tremendous pressure to reconcile what have traditionally been compartmentalized seats of knowledge. Science and religion ultimately blend into a hybrid creature, almost in spite of the authors' ridicule of organized religion. In all three books, science makes Jesus, but Jesus makes miracles. Rather than scoffing at miracles and protecting the church (as, say, many in the Enlightenment did) these books scoff loudly at the church while protecting the idea of a miraculous Jesus. Even when the technological chips are down, these three pieces demonstrate a need for enchantment in people's ideas of the world, even strongly scientific worlds. We are missing the miraculous, and we need it to subvert the natural order and save us from the climate we have have irrevocably changed.

[1] In this first note, I want to thank profusely my colleague Dr. Jeremy Garber, whose conversation and encouragement were instrumental and invaluable in the construction of this piece.

[2] Our current geological time that falls after this change is now commonly referred to as the "Anthropocene Age," the epoch of humans. We humans are doing something on a geological scale in this era. My ideas about this time are largely from Dipesh Chakrabarty, "The Climate of History: Four Theses." Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009): 197-222.

[3] Akeel Bilgrami explains a complex form of the re-enchantment of what Max Weber called the "disenchanted world." "Occidentalism, the Very Idea: An Essay on Enlightenment and Enchantment." Critical Inquiry 32.3 (Spring 2006): 381-411.

[4] Readers might hear in this echoes of Paul Ricouer's version of "second naïveté." A nice guide and theological exploration of this concept can be found in The Second Naiveté: Barth, Ricoeur, and the New Yale Theology. Wallace, Mark I., 2nd edition. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

[5] Sean Murphy (w, a), Todd Klein (l). Punk Rock Jesus. #1-6 (September 2012-February 2013). New York: Vertigo, 2013.

[6] This balance is succinctly explored by Jessica Baldanzi, "A Holiday Review of Radical Jesus and Punk Rock Jesus. The Elkhart Truth. December 24, 2014. http://m.elkharttruth.com/living/Community-Blogs/2014/12/24/A-holiday-review-of-Radical-Jesus-and-Punk-Rock-Jesus.html

[7] Seeley, Tim (w), Nate Bellegarde (p), Mike Norton (p), Mark Englert (i), Joseph Baker (i), Melissa S. Kaercher (i). Loaded Bible, Book I: The Jesus vs. Vampires Gospels. Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2010.

[8] French, Shawn (w), Mortimer Glum (a), Peeter Parkker (i), Rachel Leon (l). Escape from Jesus Island. #1- #3 (ongoing). Wisdum Publications, 2015- present.

About the Author

Elizabeth Coody

Elizabeth Rae Coody (PhD) is a biblical scholar with a professional interest in comic books. She is the Director of the Writing Lab and adjunct faculty for the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.