Some Thoughts on the Holiday Season's Über Pop Icon

by Chris Justice

20 December 2007

Imagine sitting down to a fish dinner with Ernest Hemingway, Izaak Walton, Norman Maclean, and the ultimate Fisher of Men.

As the Christmas season culminates, images, stories, and songs of Jesus abound, and I cannot help but reflect on pop culture’s many references to Christ.

The Andrew Lloyd Weber rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar dramatizes Christ’s final week and has inspired many Broadway productions. The bluesy chords from Billy Gibbons’s guitar and his downtrodden vocal rasps in ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” often make me smile. The popularity of Jesus action figures should make toy collectors smile as widely.

In cinema, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ was arguably one of 1980’s best films and ignited controversies about Christ’s life that remain unsettled today. Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ generated a similar buzz. Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code has launched conspiracy theorists and scholars into a whirlwind with his controversial portrayals of Christianity, including the role of Mary Magdalene and Gnostic Christianity, and his depictions of the Holy Grail legend and European art, most notably Da Vinci’s renowned painting, the Mona Lisa.

The “What would Jesus do?” (W.W.J.D.) campaign originated as a mantra for US Christians, reminding them that Christ is the model for all human behavior. However, the phrase morphed into a pop culture punching bag, with variations surfacing that alluded to the campaign against driving SUVs (“What would Jesus drive?”); a South Park song mocking a popular ice skater and the phrase itself (“What would Brian Boitano do?”); the Dirty Dancing franchise (“What would Patrick Swayze do?”); and an anti-war campaign indicting President Bush and his contradictory impulse to wage war in Iraq while simultaneously claiming to be a compassionate conservative (“What would Jesus bomb?”). Today, a quick search on the Internet reveals one can purchase W.W.J.D. shirts, thongs, coffee mugs, and related items. However, one of the most provocative and endearing images of Christ in popular culture is one that appears on many cars’ bumpers as a sticker or metal logo: the fish. According to Dr. Elizabeth McNamer, a contributor to and author of “Cast Your Nets: Fishing at the Time of Jesus”, the fish has long been a symbol for Christianity. She writes, “The symbol of a fish was used by persecuted Christians as a code name for Christ to avoid arrest and execution by Roman authorities. When a picture of a fish appeared outside a Roman home, it meant that the Lord’s Supper would be observed that night.” In fact, the Greek word for fish is ichthus, which forms the English word “ichthyology,” or the study of fish. Its Greek spelling is IXOYE, or Iota (I), Chi (Ch), Theta (Th), Upsilon (Y), and Sigma (S). The Christian declaration “Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter,” which means “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior,” surfaces when these letters are used acrostically. In the world of text messaging and emoticons, the fish symbol is proudly displayed as <><. Biblical references to fish, fishermen, and fishing abound. In Genesis, fish are the first creatures created by God. In the Book of Habakkuk, a seine, net, and hook are alluded to, and Job wonders if he can catch a leviathan with only a hook. McNamer continues, “In the Book of Tobit, Tobiah is told, ‘Cut the fish open and take out its gall, heart, and liver and keep them with you…its gall, heart, and liver make useful medicines’ (6:3-7). Later, Tobiah uses the fish gall to remove cataracts from his father’s eyes.” Jeremiah, when discussing the return of the Israelites from Babylon, mentions fishermen: “Look! I will send many fishermen, says the Lord, to catch them” (16:16). And of course, the story of Jonah and the whale is legendary. The image of Jesus the fisherman has also resonated for centuries. Christ’s preaching is full of references to fishing, and he frequently relied on fishing as a metaphor. McNamer writes,
Jesus preached in terms of fishing, almost echoing Jeremiah when he says to Peter and the other fishermen: ‘From now on you will be catching men’ (Luke 5:11). Two miraculous catches of fish are related in Luke 5:1-11 and John 21:1-8. All of the gospel writers attest that he fed thousands with fish and bread. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a dragnet (Matthew 13:47-48). He paid taxes with a coin found in the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:27). Jesus is depicted as preaching from fishing boats and sailing in fishing boats. The crowds that followed him carried bread and fish (Mark 6:35-40). The hungry asked for fish (Luke 11:1). Jesus was given fish to eat after his resurrection in Jerusalem (Luke 24:42), and he cooked fish for his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:9). He traveled to and from places in the company of fishermen. And, most importantly, Jesus chose fishermen for the important job of spreading his word and building his church.
Many of Christ’s parables were narrated from a boat, and perhaps his most famous statement about fishermen appears in Mark: “Come after me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (1:17). Being doused with water symbolically represents one’s baptism into Christianity, which also draws parallels between Christian converts and fish. Of course, fishing during Christ’s time was radically different than today’s sport. McNamer writes, “Several methods of fishing have been used for centuries on the Sea of Galilee. Some fishermen caught with their bare hands, some used wicker baskets or other kinds of fish traps made of nets or rope, (and) some used spears, arrows or harpoons. But by far the most popular kind of fishing is by net.” McNamer explains the three primary types of nets that were used during Christ’s time: the dragnet, the cast net, and the trammel net. The dragnet stretched several hundred feet across, and weights anchored it to the water’s bottom. Fishermen dragged it across the bottom, trapping fish in the mesh, and pulled its contents to shore. The cast net was smaller and cast from a boat. Weights sunk it to the bottom, and fishermen manually pulled it to the surface with fish trapped in the bottom of the net’s raindrop-like shape. The trammel net, McNamer writes, “was actually composed of three nets, two large mesh walls about five feet high with a finer net in between. The boat went out into deep waters where there are no rocks so that the nets would not be torn. It was usually done by night. One end of the net was let down into the sea, then the boat made a circle creating a sort of tub in the water.” Christ and his apostles also used the hook, line, and sinker approach popular in today’s recreational fishing circles. The Sea of Galilee was Christ’s most popular fishing hole, and the business protocols surrounding the fishing industry at the time were strict. McNamer reports that fish without scales, such as eels or catfish, were considered unworthy of the table, and “fish had to be sold while the water still remained on them”. Dried fish were a delicacy for aristocrats back in Rome, and because fish was the primary source of protein, an elaborate tax and fishing rights (i.e. licensing) system emerged. The most common fish caught during Jesus’ time were tila,pia (also known as musht or St. Peter’s fish); biny (a type of carp); and sardines. Five apostles—Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Philip—resided in Bethsaida, which means “house of the fishermen,” and some Biblical scholars believe many of Christ’s journeys were governed by his involvement in the fishing industry. Why did Christ so frequently associate with fishermen? McNamer believes the answer is more practical than philosophical: as fishermen, they were “savvy businessmen” who spoke many languages because of the extensive travel and social interaction commercial fishing required. They also were patient, hard working, smart, persistent, and communal, and they possessed knowledge about law, human nature, and the natural world. During this Christmas season, I have the good fortune of sharing many meals with family and friends. However, I’ve always imagined another dinner, one with classic anglers sharing fishing tales until midnight in a deep woods cabin. Ernest Hemingway, Izaak Walton, and Norman Maclean would undoubtedly be invited. And so would Jesus. What yarns we would spin…and you know what we’d be serving.
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