Like many people born during our secular age, my primary religious instruction came from the media in general, and specifically, the best possible source: Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. I learned that all religions are essentially equal, that practitioners of different faiths are all worthy of respect, and that God can melt the faces off of Nazis. It was seeing Last Crusade in middle school that first got me interested in studying religion academically.
Now, a few years and a small mountain of academic training later, I look back at the Indy movies and am struck by two weird things: The main Indy trilogy is essentially a conversion narrative in which the hero never converts…which is a little strange. But second (and maybe this is the reason he never converts?): he exists in a universe where all the religions are seemingly true, based on the very real powers each movie’s main artifact displays. I’m going to spend three (lengthy!) posts exploring the weird religious universe that the first three Indiana Jones films create.
I should mention up front that I am ignoring Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull — since it deals more with 1950s sci-fi-style alien artifacts, it doesn’t quite line up with the mystical relics of the previous three films. I’m also going to talk about the films in our chronology, not Indy’s, which is why I’m jumping into Raiders before Temple.
What’s a conversion narrative, you ask? Basically a person screws up a lot, but eventually has a realization that life, as they’re living it, is corrupt, and they make a drastic change to fix it. This narrative can be applied to any philosophy or exercise regime or diet plan, but when you deal with religion there’s usually a supernatural element – often a vision or voice, but sometimes just an emotional response. By his own account, Paul is a total jerkface until Jesus confronts him and tells him to cut out all the jerkfacedness (…I’m paraphrasing), while Augustine came to his conversion through studying Paul after a disembodied voice told him to do so. Both of Johnny Cash’s autobiographies detail years of drug abuse and tour dalliances, which he’s only able to leave behind after he becomes a more dedicated Christian. And all the versions of A Christmas Carol you’ve ever read or seen are conversion narratives in which Scrooge converts to “the spirit of Christmas” and lives his life differently after being visited by the ghosts.
The three Indiana Jones movies are similarly structured as conversion narratives. If we look at the films from Indy’s chronology, he starts as a jerkface (in Temple of Doom) and then has a series of supernatural experiences that really should change the way he looks at life and the universe. And yet, the narrative is thwarted, and he ends the series pretty much the same as how he started it—as a somewhat roguish and definitely secular adventurer.
I thought the best way to jump into the Indyverse is to look at some of the Indiana Jones knock-offs and homages that emerged after Raiders premiered in 1981. None of these films feel the need to give us treasure hunting with a side of theology, so why does Indy?
King Solomon’s Mines (1985) and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986) were two of the largest Indy-esque movies of the era. Even though they went back to the original “Lost World” novels of H. Rider Hagggard for source material, Cannon pictures added enough modern touches and snark that it made the films much friendlier to an audience of kids, and updated the setting from the 1880s to WWI, which obviously echoes Indy’s pre-WWII adventuring. In both films, the heroes are fairly straightforward treasure hunters, with maybe a side of “looking for a missing relative” thrown in. For the most part, they all just want to get rich, not fight Nazis or look for God. Romancing the Stone (1984) was initially dismissed as a modern Raiders knock-off, but was so successful it warranted a sequel, 1985’s Jewel of the Nile. Both films are purely about treasure hunting gone awry, with a side of romance.
Even the illustrated style of the posters emphasize this similarity, with one giant difference: Michael Douglas’ Jack T. Colton is described as a “reckless soldier of fortune” (read: illegal tropical bird dealer) swings into his poster on a vine. Richard Chamberlain’s bandoliered Allan Quatermain is searching for a treasure – note the giant pile of gold directly next to him. Indy looks like a devil-may-care adventurer here, but he’s also not hoarding gold, or sweeping a girl off her feet, because instead he’s standing protectively in front of the Ark.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, Or, Melting Nazis
Now, to get everyone on the same page here’s a brief history of the Ark of the Covenant, pieced together from the Hebrew Bible, with some later scholarship added for context:
After the Hebrews escaped slavery in Egypt, God “dwelled” with them as they traveled across the desert. The form of God that manifested is called Shekhinah, and is the only feminine name used for the God of the Hebrews. (Some people take this to mean that this is a feminine counterpart to the Hebrew God, some people link the Shekhinah to the aspect of the Trinity that’s called The Holy Spirit, and Shekhinah makes an appearance in the Quran as the Sakīnah, and is used to mean “security” i.e.: the security that comes from having faith. Cue “The More you Know” rainbow.) Once Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Hebrews were faced with a basic problem: you’ve just been given these incredibly important rules from your God. Following them is hard enough, but how do you store them? You don’t want to, like, chip the Commandments, or accidentally put a coffee mug down on them and leave a ring. So they constructed the Ark, carried it with them, and according to lore conquered armies with the strength it gave them. Once they got to Jerusalem they gave it a permanent home in the First Temple, and it was kept in an interior room called Kodesh Hakodashim, or Holy of Holies. The powers of the Ark were mostly holding the FREAKING TEN COMMANDMENTS, but it apparently also zapped people for touching it. (A man named Uzzah died after trying to catch the Ark when a cow bumped into it, which is omnipotent dirty pool in my opinion.) At some point it was lost – either taken by Babylonian conquerors in the 580s BCE, or possibly saved and hidden along with some other icons to keep it safe from invaders. The important part, for our purposes, is that it was LOST.
After World War II, there was a flurry of books and movies detailing the atrocities of Nazis. Some of these were quite serious, like The Nuremberg Trials, while some were a little more fantastical, like all the stories about elderly SS officers hiding out in South America, and some were straight sci-fi like They Saved Hitler’s Brain! Part of this urge to catalog the Nazi’s evil was to dive into their supposed occult history. A book called The Morning of the Magicians popularized the theory that the roots of Nazism could be found in occult organizations like the Vril Society and Thule Society, and later works like The Occult Roots of Nazism provided fodder for dozens of History Channel documentaries about Nazis hunting mystical icons, which in turn inspired the movie Constantine, the Puppet Master series, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and a whole bunch of Hellboy arcs. Now there is a small grain of truth to all of these stories: there was an organization called the Ahnenerbe, whose stated purpose was to trace Aryan history, but whose true aim was to claim that Germans were responsible for everything good in the world. The group’s founder, Heinrich Himmler, actually had the occult obsession that was later credited to Hitler (der Fuhrer’s own religious beliefs are harder to pin down, since he often tailored his statements to ensure public approval), and threaded pagan symbolism into the organization of the SS. In addition to that, after the Third Reich “annexed” Austria in 1938, they had the Hofburg Spear moved to Nuremburg. The Spear, which is one of several spears across Europe claimed to be the Holy Lance, inspired a book called The Spear of Destiny by one Trevor Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft inspired the surname of…you guessed it, Abner and Marion Ravenwood.
Steven Spielberg took this strand of popular history and ran with it for the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
At the beginning of the film, Indy seems to be purely a treasure hunter. It’s only after he returns home that we learn that he’s slightly more altruistic, and was trying to get the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol for safekeeping in Marcus’ museum. (Of course, he’s still removing the idol from its home culture and context to put it on display for a probably upper-class white audience…but I’m leaving that alone for now.) He scoffs at the power of the idol and the gods behind it, and indeed the threats of the idol are just eons-old booby traps, constructed by humans to kill other humans. This sets a particular tone, as the idol is grabbed, tossed, and wielded with no reverence or respect by the western treasure hunters, but when the Hovitos see it they prostrate themselves. In the end it’s only a statue, and its power comes from the beliefs of those who consider it holy. (Now, if you look into the background of the idol, it was based on the theory that the Chachapoyan people were the descendants of Vikings, which was put forward by Nazi collaborator Jacques deMahieu. So Belloq’s interest in the idol actually falls in line with his other Nazi-funded esoterica projects.
After that opening gambit, we cut to Indy in the classroom, where he’s complaining that “local traditions and superstition” are a problem for archaeology, since laypeople will go treasure hunting and destroy historical sites in the process. While I can buy the white Ivy League historian scoffing at what he sees as primitive superstition – especially given that the “mystic powers” of the Hovitos’ idol proved to be booby traps, albeit sophisticated ones – when presented with a lead on the location of the Ark of the Covenant, he reacts with a singular mix of excitement and snark that shows he doesn’t have immediate respect for Judeo-Christian artifacts, either.
When the government stooges (one of them is Jek Porkins!) ask him about the Ark and the Staff of Ra, he outlines the history of the Ark for them. They claim that Hitler is “obsessed with the occult” but seem totally ignorant about the Ark and its history, with Indy even having to explain that it housed “the original Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mt. Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing…” before asking “didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday School?”
After they exchange an embarrassed look, Dr. Jones goes on to say that the Ark may have been taken by the Egyptian Pharoah Shishak (maybe Shoshenq I?) in 980 BC(E), and that Tannis, the city that housed the Ark, was buried in a sandstorm. Spielberg uses stories from 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles to give the Ark some post-Temple closure, while skirting around the inconvenience of the Babylonians. It also brings us back to Egypt, which is a much more digestible ancient kingdom for U.S. movie audiences. All discussion of the Ark’s history stops there, though, and the ideas of its historical significance never really start in the first place. What the government guys want to know is: what does the Ark do? And why is this nefarious Adolf fellow so interested in it?
Indy, who has apparently memorized every page of the edition of the Bible that happens to be sitting in the empty classroom they’re using, opens the massive book up to an illustration of the Ark’s zappiness.
The Stooges are suitably impressed:
Stooge (horrified): Good God…
Marcus (slightly amused): Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought…
Other Stooge: What’s that?
Indy: Lightning. Fire. Power of God or…something…
Marcus: The army that carries the Ark before it is invincible.
Which, again, tell that to the Babylonians. But for the purposes of the movie, we’ve now just kicked into full STOP HITLER mode, and we don’t really slow down again until the end. Indy happily accepts the offer to go get the Ark, simply because he likes the idea of the artifact itself, and he hinges his agreement on the promise that Marcus will get the Ark for his museum. While the tone of the film shifts as Indy begins his search for the Lost Ark, Indy himself does not become a man on a religious quest, it’s just a race to get it before the Nazis can.
There is no discussion of the Ark as a religious artifact, no thought of the impact this find would have on Biblical studies, anti-Semitism, the rise of Nazism in Europe, people’s individual faith… nothing. Indy doesn’t call in a cavalcade of rabbis to help. It’s never considered that maybe a Judaic Studies program should be funding this mission. Frankly, I find this really weird. Obviously you don’t have time to stop for a lengthy theological conversation in the middle of an action movie, but still, some mention of…oh, wait, but the movie does do that. Sort of. When Indy worries about facing Marion for the first time in a decade, Marcus reacts with annoyance:
Brody: Marion’s the least of your worries right now, believe me, Indy.
Indiana: What do you mean?
Brody: Well, I mean that for nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the lost Ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets. It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.
Indiana: [laughing] Oh, Marcus. What are you trying to do, scare me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus-pocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance, you’re talking about the boogie man.
So, here we are. They’re going after an artifact that is significant specifically because of its religious meaning, but Marcus’ attempt to reckon with that religious meaning is dismissed as hocus-pocus, and the Hebrew God is referred to as “the boogieman.” This is a boldly secular stance, both for a mid-1930s professor and for an early-1980s movie. This level of snark continues throughout the movie, and at first, the movie itself seems to support Indy’s mocking stance. The initial action mirrors the hunt for the idol at the beginning: booby traps, ancient Egyptian dioramas, roughly a billion snakes who live in a cave without a visible food source… it’s all more or less explainable. Indy and Sallah find the Ark, and they’re able to lift it and carry it around without any Uzzah-esque zappy times, so at first it seems that this is just another artifact from a long past age.
While Marcus, Sallah, and even Belloq all take the Ark seriously, Indy crashes through the quest like a fedora’d Labrador puppy, dragging Marion behind him. (Marion, meanwhile, seems predominately concerned with (a) her share of the money and (b) not getting tortured by Toht, and we never learn her feelings about the Ark itself.) Finally, the film itself weighs in on this. The camera tracks into a dark room on the Nazi ship, where the Ark has been stored in a be-swastikaed box… and we get to watch as the Ark burns the insignia off. This is something only the audience sees, as it’s the only scene in the film that doesn’t have any actors in it. In this moment, the Ark goes from being a relic of great historical significance to an actual character with agency. And it uses that agency to hate Nazis.
Finally, after all this build-up, Marion getting kidnapped, the Ark getting Ark-napped, Indy somehow surviving on a submerged submarine for an improbably long time, we get to the big scene where Indy confronts Belloq and the Nazis with a rocket launcher. We figure he’s going to rescue the ark from the evil-doers. But no! He takes aim at the Ark, and threatens to blow it up if Marion isn’t released. Belloq calls his bluff, and he backs down, only because he admits that he wants to see it opened, not because he thinks it has any intrinsic religious value. From this point on, Indy, like Marion, is utterly helpless. He is a captive just as she is, and the two of them are tied to a stake together to watch as Belloq claims his latest victory.
Here’s where it gets extra weird, and goes in a direction that most movie-goers were probably not expecting in 1981. Does Indy somehow break out and defeat his enemies? Does Marion use a combination of seductive wiles and fists to subdue a Nazi? No. All the old 1930s movie serial tropes are left by the wayside. One Nazi makes a passing reference to being uncomfortable with the Jewish ritual they were about to enact, but everyone else seems cool with it. Which makes no sense. But then Belloq, a French archaeologist who is employed by the Third Reich, and thus, presumably, not Jewish, comes out in full 6th Century BCE priestly garb.
Now here’s my question: where the hell was he keeping these historically accurate priestly robes? He has everything that Exodus 28 says a priest should wear: a pectoral, an ephod, a robe, an embroidered tunic, a turban and a belt. Was he just carrying all this stuff around with him? Was the breastplate packed under the dress he gave Marion? And more importantly: why does a French archaeologist, who is definitively not a priest of the line of Aaron, who has presumably not undertaken any of the ritual purification necessary, and who most likely does not believe in Yahweh in that highly specific Exodus-era way, think that his prayer will work? The prayer (said in Aramaic, because Belloq is one t-crossing, i-dotting bastard) is traditionally said in Temple when the Torah Ark is opened during services:
Not in human do I trust
And not on any child do I rely
In him [who] God is true
And whose Torah is true
In him will I trust
And to his name make precious praise.
Keep in mind he’s surrounded by vicious anti-Semites, who are all mostly on board with enacting a Hebrew ceremony to honor the artifact they’ve found, which, if it actually provides the direct line to God Belloq kept talking about, should immediately call into question the entire Nazi project, since it kind of means the descendants of the Hebrews are backing the correct horse, theologically speaking. No matter what happens, it won’t be in the Nazis’ favor, but they do it anyway. At first it seems the Ark is a dud, because it turns out to be full of sand.
But the sand turns out to have angry Hebrew ghosts in it, and within a few moments, they’re flying through the air, terrorizing everyone, and the Nazis all get zapped through the eyes and heart like so many Uzzahs.
All except Toht, Colonel Dietrich, and Belloq himself. Toht and Dietrich’s faces melt off, and Belloq’s head explodes, because the God of the Hebrews is apparently a Scanner.
Now here’s where it gets really, really interesting. Indy and Marion are saved from head-explodey-times by keeping their eyes closed, a demonstration of reverence in the face of the Ark’s power. But having just experienced this event, they still allow the Ark to go to Washington, rather than, say, dropping it into the ocean where no human hands could touch it again. Indy still believes that it should go to Marcus’ museum, and he still believes that humans should study its power. This seems…I don’t know… silly? Dumb? Catastrophically dumb?
Indy goes through this entire journey, which in most narratives would result in a conversion, but ends it by being pissed off at the government, and seemingly on a track to romantic bliss with Marion. He says “They don’t know what they’ve got there,” but there’s no indication that he really understands the Ark either. The audience, however, is allowed to both see the Ark at work, and watch as government agents tuck it away in the warehouse, clearly not understanding its power. This creates an interesting gap between us and Indy. Next, we’ll go forward into the past to look at Indy’s brush with Eastern mysticism in the prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Will he, like so many college sophomores before him, decide that the religions of India hold his true path?