Godzilla, King of the Monsters
The truth is that Godzilla and Jesus have far more in common than one might think. They are both said to be possessed of awesome power and somewhat indeterminate origins, stories about them are all very much rooted in the social climate of their times, and they have approximately the same level of worldwide name recognition.* Both are the center of a variety of major marketing campaigns, both have countless books and films devoted to de-constructing their meaning, and both have large, devoted, and often annoying fandoms. They're also similar in another, very important way - both of them have various accounts of their lives and understandings of their meaning that just plain don't jive, and boy do their followers do whatever they can to try and shoehorn them into some semblance of consilience.
Jesus of Nazareth, Jewish Prophet
For example, the origins of both Jesus and Godzilla differ depending on the accounts in which they're depicted. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both differ significantly, for example, in the genealogies of Joseph, the husband of Jesus' mother Mary (Joseph's genealogy was important to show that Jesus was a descendant of David). In comparison, Godzilla is said to have been a mutated dinosaur in the original 1954 film, but in the later film GMK, he is alluded to as a weird amalgamation of the souls of those killed in the Pacific War. Likewise, the location of their births is open to question. Was Jesus born in Bethlehem, as indicated in Matthew and Luke, or was he born in Nazareth, as John indicates? (See John 7:41-43, in which people question whether or not Jesus can be the messiah since he is known to come from Nazareth and not Bethlehem.) Godzilla, likewise, is alternately said to have come from either Odo Island (the 1954 film) or Lagos Island (the 1991 film).
In the case of Jesus, I suppose an argument could be made that his origins are shrouded in the mists of history. However, it isn't that we don't have any information about where he was born, it's that we have conflicting information about where he was born. Reports about Godzilla are a slightly different matter - because we know Godzilla isn't real, we can look for the meaning behind his two supposed birthplaces. When we're done examining the meanings of Godzilla's birthplace, we will attempt to use the same principles to look at Jesus' origins.
Odo Island, itself fictional, is a remote outpost of the Japanese archipelago peopled with fishermen and other people working rustic trades. Godzilla appears here because the post-war incident that directly inspired his creation, an event in which a Japanese fishing vessel became irradiated by straying too near a U.S. nuclear test and went on to sicken dozens of people with contaminated fish, represented an attack on the Japanese everyman. Godzilla's appearance on Odo Island indicated that no one was safe - not even people living far from the urban population centers targeted during the war were safe from the new nuclear paradigm.
Lagos Island, also fictitious***, is presented in the 1991 film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah as a Japanese army garrison. This particular film is actually a statement about Japan's emerging role in world markets, especially Japan's economic rivalry with the United States. The antagonists of the film are Caucasian terrorists from the future, and King Ghidorah is a monster that they have created to attack Japan and hobble its economy. By putting Godzilla's origin (and King Ghidorah's) on a WW2 battlefield island, the storyteller is providing a context for the ongoing rivalry between the United States and Japan. He is saying, in effect, that despite the goings on of the past six decades, the relationship between Japan and the U.S. will always be colored by the events of the second World War.
When it comes to Jesus, why is it important to so many Biblical authors that he be born in Bethlehem? It is largely, or perhaps entirely, due to the prophecy of Micah 5:2, in which the one who will rule Israel is predicted to come from "Bethlehem Ephrathah". There would be a strong incentive for people inclined to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah to "spin" his origin to put it at a place predicted in the scriptures. It is also worth noting that when Matthew quotes the Micah prophecy in his narrative, he alters the words to say "Bethlehem in the land of Juda" rather than "Bethlehem Ephrathah" - the latter reading would indicate a particular Jewish clan rather than a physical location. Prophecy also accounts for the tedious genealogies given in Matthew and Luke - the scriptures indicate the Messiah will be a descendant of David, so both Matthew and Luke try to tie Jesus to David through the Joseph's supposed ancestry. Exactly how Joseph's ancestry would matter if Jesus was sired by God rather than Joseph seems unimportant to them. Perhaps the myths of Davidic ancestry and the Immaculate Conception originally existed separately from each other in the oral traditions about Jesus, only later to become mashed together in a form that doesn't exactly make sense.
Other bare specifics about the lives of both Jesus and Godzilla are contested by our various sources about them. Did Jesus die on the morning after the Passover meal, as in Mark, or did he die on the day of -preparation- for Passover as in John? Did Godzilla die in Tokyo Bay from the Oxygen Destroyer in 1954, or fighting Destoroyah at Haneda airport in 1995? Did Jesus drive the money changers from the Temple at the end of his ministry as in the Synoptic Gospels, or at the beginning, as in John? Did Godzilla face Anguiras as his first opponent, as in the Showa timeline, or was Biollante the first other monster with whom he did battle, as in the Heisei timeline?**** Was Jesus mocked while clothed in a scarlet robe or a purple one? Are Godzilla's dorsal spines gray, purple, or crystalline? Hell, is Godzilla himself gray or green?
It's possible to smooth out some of these discrepancies by combining our narratives and using some mental gymnastics to make the problems disappear, but doing so results in a narrative that is unlike any of the narratives that we've actually been given. In Mark, Jesus is crucified on the morning after the Passover meal, while in John he is crucified on the day of preparation - it's not that either source is wrong in a literary sense, it's that they are trying to say different things about the nature of Jesus' death. John's placing of Jesus' death on the day of preparation, while the Passover lambs are being sacrificed at the Temple, is to make Jesus even more of a metaphor for the "Lamb of God". To John, Jesus is the ultimate Passover sacrifice, and thus he dies on the day of the other sacrifices. It may not jive with the historical facts (or maybe John's right and Mark is wrong), but it is true in a literary sense, just as Mark's account is true in a literary sense. The "facts" of Godzilla are the same way - He didn't die at Tokyo Bay or Haneda Airport, he died at both - in two separate stories about him that were meant to say different things.
The precise meaning of their lives is likewise in question and often contradictory. Jesus alternately preached both pacifism and altruism -and- the stony abandonment of family in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Godzilla likewise alternates between a raging engine of destruction and a kindly protector of human beings. Indeed, they very much appear to be reflections of the authors who pen their stories - Mark's "angry" Jesus and Honda's "angry" Godzilla, Matthew's "imperturbable" Jesus and Sekizawa's paternal Godzilla, "John's" Jesus as apocalyptic messenger in Revelations and Kaneko's malevolent supernatural Godzilla of GMK**. They get constantly co-opted for whatever message is convenient - Jesus for family values (though Matthew 19:29 places a high value on abandoning your family for the sake of the Kingdom), Godzilla for pollution control (Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, despite Godzilla's own deadly radioactivity). Does Jesus want you to cast off your own possessions, or does he want you to be rich like the prosperity preachers say? Is Godzilla primarily interested punishing humanity for misusing science (Is Godzilla nature's way of pointing out the folly of men?) or in helping children stand up to bullies, as Godzilla's Revenge says?
Both Jesus and Godzilla, precisely because they no longer speak for themselves, find all manner of words put in their mouths. It may be fair to say that the writers of the Gospels were among the world's first "fan fiction" writers. Certainly few Christians would have objections to applying that label to the writers of the non-canonical Gospels. Indeed, for example, the non-canonical Gospel of Philip, with it's wildly different portrayal of the nature of Jesus (compared to the orthodox sources) can certainly be compared to the 1997 American Godzilla film that was met with such acrimony by "orthodox" Godzilla fans. Indeed, whatever one wants Jesus, or Godzilla, to stand for, it's not hard to find some source, be it canonical, non-canonical, folkloric, or otherwise, with which to substantiate that view.
More extreme examples: Some modern "scholars" (In quotation marks because they exist far outside the realm of scholarly consensus) argue that Jesus had a wife, Mary Magdalene. Some modern Godzilla fan fiction authors often use the character "Gigantis" as a female counterpart for Godzilla. Schlock writer Tim LaHaye sends himself into spasms over his fantasies about the bloody, apocalyptic Second Coming, while schlock director Ryuhei Kitamura was quite impressed with his own bloody and personality-less Godzilla rampaging through Earth's final hours.
Even the early Christian docetists have their counterparts among Godzilla fans: Did Jesus really die on the cross, or did he merely appear to die? Was Godzilla actually killed by the Oxygen Destroyer, or did he merely appear to be killed? Jesus is said to have been resurrected, and likewise Godzilla appeared again only a year after his "death". Was this "new" Jesus a phantasm as some of the docetists contended? Was this new Godzilla the same creature as 1954, or a different monster entirely?
Indeed, did Jesus understand himself to be a Jewish apocalyptic prophet as some modern scholars (See Ehrman, for example) contend, or did he see himself as God's son, as contended by many Christian theologians? Did Godzilla see himself as nothing more than a destructive animal or a force of nature as was indicated in the 1954 film, a sentient but malevolent engine of vengeance as depicted in GMK, or the friendly protector of Earth and humanity as depicted in Godzilla vs. Megalon? Because neither one of them can answer these questions for themselves, people continue to battle fiercely over their legacies.
Godzilla and Jesus both also speak to us through their shared deaths and resurrections. Jesus, of course, is said to have died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. Indeed, according to Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is the single most important event in the entire history of the universe. It is said to be through his death and rebirth that humanity is redeemed. Godzilla, likewise, died for humanity, fiercely battling against Destoroyah in 1995. It was his death in battle against this horrible creature that, according the Godzilla legends, saved the entire world at the cost of Godzilla's own life. But wait, for Godzilla was resurrected - His only begotten son was taken up by Godzilla's escaping radioactivity and was reborn as a new Godzilla. Thus, Godzilla also saved humanity by his death and rebirth.
The messages of Godzilla and Jesus share a similar root in the worldly fears of the people who follow them. Godzilla's original message was rooted in the very real fears, newly introduced to the world only scant years before his first appearance, of nuclear war. Godzilla himself is, in our earliest sources, a thinly veiled cipher for the atomic bomb and for war in general - he is an unstoppable force that suddenly thunders into the lives of innocent people and wreaks havoc upon them. Likewise, Jesus' message, as attested to by our earliest sources, was that of upcoming apocalypse and the final reversal of fortunes when this world, infected as it is with evil and suffering, is overturned and a new "Kingdom of God" reigns over the earth. Both Godzilla and Jesus speak to the fears of the people, specifically the fears of impersonal evil over which the people themselves can exercise little or no control. (There is also a strange sense in which Godzilla himself, through his change from a destructive force into a protective one, mimics the metamorphosis of Yahweh from the despotic and malevolent tyrant of the Old Testament into the benign and more or less forgiving God of Jesus in the New Testament.)
Both Godzilla and Jesus represent ways of dealing with the dominant fears of the time in which the stories about them emerged. They serve this purpose in different ways - Godzilla originally as a personification of the threatening force and Jesus, as he came to be understood, as the personification of the benign force. Godzilla and Jesus both also speak to the need to change - Jesus talked of instituting the values of the soon-to-arrive Kingdom of God during our own time, while Godzilla's gospel, such as it is, speaks of the need to change the post-WWII paradigm of international relations dominated by the fear of nuclear annihilation.
Furthermore, both Godzilla and Jesus have shed some of their original meaning and picked up new meanings throughout the years. Godzilla is no longer a grim specter of nuclear doom, he's a cultural icon, a mascot for Japan, and an action movie hero (or anti-hero). Jesus is no longer merely a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, he's the Son of God (and/or God Himself), and there are probably almost as many different interpretations of him as there are people who claim to follow him. Because, when speaking of themselves, both Jesus and Godzilla are relatively mute, they provide a blank slate for all of us to use when we want to talk about ourselves, our hopes, our fears, and our situations.
Finally, both Jesus and Godzilla have left us, the former in the first century and the latter in 2004, and many fans of both harbor a keenly felt long longing for their return. Though we cannot know when, or if, either will return, followers of both have been promised an imminent return of their heroes. "Yes, I am coming soon", Jesus reports in Revelations 22:7 and 22:12. Godzilla is said to merely be on hiatus, that he too will be "returning soon". But uncertainty is the enemy of faith, and Jesus' followers have since the first century lived in anticipation of the Second Coming, always interpreting "soon" as applying directly to themselves and their own times. Likewise, a quick jaunt to any online Godzilla forum reveals countless discussion about when the Japanese behemoth may reappear.
This idea of another coming is important to both of them. If Jesus is dead and never coming back and Godzilla is retired and will never appear in another film, then they completely are in the past. They would become relics of a bygone time, and while they might still have meaning in our lives today, the scope of this meaning would be limited. If we think of Jesus as imminently returning and Godzilla as just on sabbatical, then they can still adapt to our context. What would Jesus think about the war in Iraq? What does Godzilla have to say about nuclear tests in North Korea? By allowing these characters the opportunity to come back to us, to exist in our own times, we allow ourselves to unapologetically adapt them to the situations that we're facing in our modern lives. In other words, we allow ourselves the luxury of thinking about our situation through the lens provided by these characters.
When we talk about Godzilla, we cannot help but talk of the "legendary" Godzilla. We acknowledge him as a fictional character and understand that our interpretations of him are colored by our own expectations and by the goals and sentiments of the authors who write about him. If we were to somehow contrive to talk of a "historical" Godzilla, it would be the Godzilla of the original 1954 film, with all other interpretations of Godzilla from subsequent films, novels, cartoons, and comic books forming the embellished and often contradictory "legendary" aspect of the Godzilla myth. When the various stories about Godzilla don't jive and can't be forced into a neat continuity, we have no great need of creating a weird "non-canonical canon" to square away the differences. Because most of us have little interest in claiming that our depictions of the life of Godzilla are not without contradictions, we have little difficulty accepting that different storytellers were trying to tell different stories and make different points while using Godzilla as the vehicle for their ideas. When Kaneko's Godzilla is depicted as a supernatural monster made of the souls of the dead, it isn't because he actually was something along those lines in his original (1954) form, it's because Shusuke Kaneko's message that the Japanese public needs to come to grips with the atrocities their country visited upon their Chinese neighbors during World War II can be better expressed by using Godzilla in such a way.
When it comes to Jesus on the other hand, there is a a distinct difference between the historical Jesus and the legendary Jesus that has become the primary Christian superhero. The disparity between the historical Jesus and his legendary counterpart is enormous, and it is the legendary Jesus with whom most modern Christians are familiar. There's an enormous incentive in some circles to smooth over the differences in the accounts about Jesus' life, and indeed there are some who have little interest whatsoever in the historical Jesus and the apocalyptic message of his earthly ministry. Indeed, when it comes to authors like Tim LaHaye, and indeed even Paul, there's often little stock placed on Jesus' own understanding of himself. The problem arises when people try and mash all these competing versions of Jesus (or at least those versions that advocate values that the individuals in question want them to advocate) into one hybrid version of Jesus that doesn't match any Gospel account. In this respect though, Jesus is just like Godzilla - the various interpretations of Jesus represent attempts by various authors to use him as means of conveying their own ideas.
When Mark's Jesus repeatedly becomes irate with his disciples, and indeed when earliest ending of the Gospel of Mark concludes with the women fleeing from the empty tomb too frightened to spread the news of the Resurrection, it was because Mark was trying to illustrate that Jesus' message was misunderstood even by his closest followers. LaHaye's Jesus, riding across the plains of Megiddo on a white horse and literally exploding the armies of the Anti-Christ by the hundreds of thousands, speaks to LaHayes's own modern, Evangelical Christian eschatology. These depictions are both "true" in a literary sense, but all they can tell us is what a particular author wanted Jesus to do, not necessarily what he actually did.
Why is this so obvious when we're talking about Godzilla, but so elusive when we try and apply this understanding to Jesus? (Or indeed to God Himself?) Well, in short, it's because very few people have a vested interest in any particular depiction of Godzilla being the inerrant word of God. No one seriously thinks that Godzilla "died for their sins" or will cast them into a lake of fire after their death if they didn't live their lives correctly. The reverse is true for Jesus' followers. The desire to protect their faith, and to be able identify with the central figure of that faith, lead them to a.) ignore the obvious social constructions that play into the various myths about the legendary Jesus and b.) pick ala carte from the many varying depictions of Jesus in order to come up with an image of him that suits their purposes. Godzilla fans, of course, have favorite films and favorite incarnations of the character, and for many of them their particular view of Godzilla is very important. Discussion boards about Godzilla are often the scene of heated arguments about which interpretation of him is superior, and the answer often comes down to personal preference. When we are deciding what version Godzilla we prefer, the conclusions we reach are based on what we want to see in, and read into, the character. I contend that the same force is at work when we talk about Jesus.
There is a very real sense in which the proper understanding of Jesus, both as a historical and legendary figure, is one and the same as the proper understanding of Godzilla. While we can, with varying degrees of difficulty, point to a historical root for both of them (By watching the original 1954 Gojira or using our earliest and best sources about Jesus to try and determine what he probably said and did.), we have to understand that the majority of popular opinion on them comes from material that is not necessarily directly related to the historical root. It is important to remember that sometimes, when Godzilla and Jesus appear to say or do things in different accounts that don't match up, it isn't because we're not interpreting them correctly, it's really because they don't match up. The various writers speaking through them have different things to say. Losing sight of that does little but help to ensure a steep descent into absurdity.
*Marketing materials provided by Bandai claim that Godzilla has close to 95% name recognition in the industrialized world, which, if true, would actually be greater name recognition than Jesus.
** Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters' All-Out Attack - Widely considered to be the best Godzilla film apart from the original.
*** Technically speaking there is a real Lagos Island, but it lies off the coast of Nigeria in the Atlantic. In the Godzilla stories, Lagos is located in the South Pacific, near Japan.
**** The Showa continuity is composed of the films made from 1954-1974. The Heisei continuity is composed of the 1954 film and the films made between 1989 and 1995. The Millennium continuity consists of the films made from 1999-2004, though the majority of the Millennium series did not form a coherent storyline and rarely contain any concrete references even to the 1954 original - they are the GJn of Godzilla.