‘Percy Jackson’ Shows That Lament Can Spark Revolution | Sojourners

‘Percy Jackson’ Shows That Lament Can Spark Revolution

'Percy Jackson and the Olympians,' Disney+ 

As far as coming-of-age stories go, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a new Disney+ streaming series, is certainly an earth-shattering one. This first season follows the first book of the series by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief. Over the course of the TV series, Percy, every inch an angsty 12-year-old, finds out he’s a demigod (a child of a Greek god and a mortal human), gets taken to Camp Half-Blood (a camp for demigods  like himself to train for battle against mythical monsters), watches his mother die at the hands of the Minotaur, is accused of stealing Zeus’ master lightning bolt (wrongfully), and is tasked by the gods with returning Zeus’ missing bolt, and by doing so, saving the world from a war between the Olympians.

Percy Jackson does not get a moment to breathe — let alone process — finding out his father is the god of the sea (see also, “Earthshaker, Stormbringer”), before he is sent on his quest to clean up one of the gods’ (many) messes. And the thing is, Percy has no sense of loyalty for this mythical world he’s been thrown into. Because although it’s kind of cool, he guesses, to have a Greek god as a dad, Percy mostly feels resentment toward his father for never being around while he was growing up. As Percy says in the book, “Poseidon had ignored me for 12 years, and now he needs me?” 

As readers and viewers learn, Zeus had many years ago forbidden the gods from contacting their half-blood children because the demigods become too powerful for the world’s good when they do. The children of the gods are supposed to be loyal to their divine parents, despite never receiving attention from them. Percy, brand new to this power structure, immediately sees the problems with it. In a conversation with his friend Annabeth, a child of Athena, he explains that he doesn’t understand the way demigods talk about their parents, like they have to earn their love. “People who are close to you aren’t supposed to treat you that way,” he says.

Percy isn’t just being an angsty adolescent; he’s protesting the status quo. There’s real wisdom in his stubbornness. In his essay “The Costly Loss of Lament,” theologian Walter Brueggemann writes that “the absence of lament makes a religion of coercive obedience the only possibility.” This is the world in which Percy Jackson finds himself, one where “the capacity to initiate lament is absent,” as Brueggemann puts it, and where demigods are only supposed to offer empty “praise and doxology.” There is virtually no room for the demigods to protest the way their divine parents treat them. Percy, on the other hand, questions everything. He makes it clear he does not understand or approve of gods who do not seem to care for their children.

Brueggemann warns of the dangers that come when we lose the ability to lament. Christian theology has long upheld the importance of lament, documented extensively in the Psalms and quoted by Jesus from the cross (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). In a culture where lament is absent, it is easy to lose sight of what truly just relationships look like.

Percy’s frustration with the gods’ absence reflects the tradition of lament in Christian theology. He embodies a speaker who shows his audience, and his god(s), that things are not right the way they are. Percy personifies the idea of lament as a revolutionary tool for addressing injustice. He is surrounded by others — Chiron (his centaur teacher), Grover (Percy’s best friend and guardian), and Annabeth — who have grown accustomed to the power structure of the gods. They may not like the Zeus-ordained abandonment, but they don’t question it, choosing instead to keep themselves on the gods’ good side by sticking to the status quo.

In his article “Reconfiguring the Akedah and Recasting God: Lament and Divine Abandonment in Mark,” Matthew Rindge, a professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, examines the power of Jesus’ lament on the cross in Mark 15:34: “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Ringe suggests that Jesus’ lament on the cross gives Mark’s audience permission to do the same. “On the one hand, Mark’s audience may be able to see their own suffering and persecution articulated in Jesus’ cry,” he writes. “On the other hand, Jesus’ cry models for Mark’s authorial audience a lament that they can make their own. Jesus gives voice in 15:34 to their own lived experience and directs this voice to the God that they worship. Members of Mark’s authorial audience who have experienced persecution can express themselves in and through Jesus’ cry.”

Pulling from Brueggemann’s ideas, Rindge suggests that lament gives power to the sufferer in a way that isn’t always seen in typical power structures. Lament is the questioning of suffering. Jesus asks, if possible, for God to take away his suffering, his death. Rindge writes, “Mark’s Gospel offers its authorial audience a form of speech that dares to challenge both the injustice of that system and the divine abandonment that accompanies it.”

While on the surface, Percy’s laments may sound like mere preteen brooding, his complaints are actually quite revolutionary. Percy is not afraid to name injustices. In the face of the all-powerful gods (some of whom very much want to maim him), he is not afraid to give voice to the voiceless. His incessant questions may seem annoying at first, but these questions slowly start to offer to his friends and fellow demigods the same kind of direction that Rindge suggests Jesus offers to Mark’s audience. His ability to question the gods — their rules and their absence — paves the way for others, like his friend Annabeth, to challenge the status quo as well.

After a memorable run-in with Medusa, Percy wants to send her head to the gods on Olympus. Annabeth tells Percy, “They will see this as impertinent.” Percy ignores her warning, shoving Medusa’s head into a box and shrugs his shoulders, saying, “I am impertinent.” Percy’s impertinence later causes trouble for them as his actions did, in fact, upset the gods.

But, without spoiling too much, I can tell you that Percy’s protests, and the gods’ undue reactions, begin to chip away at Annabeth’s rule-following nature. While she remains “perhaps the most formidable demigod child alive,” she’s doing things on her own terms now, rejecting the gods’ rigid system of glory. Annabeth realizes she doesn’t “want to be that way anymore.” Like in Mark, Percy’s lament is contagious. His example of revolutionary impertinence shows Annabeth a new way to relate to the gods, a way in which she has ego and initiative. Percy’s questioning has given her “a form of speech that dares to challenge both the injustice of that system and the divine abandonment that accompanies it.” 
Spoilers ahead

However, some of Percy’s friends are too late for his example and learn what the costly loss of lament really is. In the book, Luke, son of Hermes, once an older-brother figure for both Percy and Annabeth, is eventually revealed as the Lightning Thief, bent on ruining the gods out of anger toward his father, Hermes. By stealing the bolt, Luke knows he will start a chain of events that lead to a monumental war of the gods. Luke does not want to create a more just system; he wants to see the current one destroyed. Luke’s decision to stay silent and let his pain fester allowed him to be seduced by those who have the power to destroy the gods. As Brueggemann writes of Psalm 39, the speaker has tried to keep silent, but “the practise of restraint only contributed to the trouble.” 

So may we heed the example of Jesus’ (and Percy’s) revolutionary lament — lament that allows us to participate in “serious communion and communication” with God, as Brueggemann writes. Lament, giving voice to these pains, tells the world we will not accept things staying the way they are. Through lament, we tell God we know God can bring change, and we must do our part to bring that change as well. May we be like Percy and Annabeth, speaking out against the injustice of the world and showing others a more just path.