Note: This article contains spoilers for episodes of Steven Universe right up to the end of season 2. All kinds of plot and character details are discussed, so proceed with caution. I’m also going to talk a lot about the Bible and Christianity, so if that’s not your thing, now you know.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve been looking after my two young children. And I’ve been getting deeply into the Cartoon Network’s excellent series, Steven Universe. I’d strongly advise you to go and watch it if you haven’t already. Much of this article assumes some familiarity with the series and its setting. But let’s summarise the central idea:
Steven Universe is the story of Steven, a boy with magical powers. His father is a former rock musician; his mother was the leader of a team of alien superheroes, who gave up her physical form to bring her son into the world. Having been raised as a small child by his dad, Steven now lives with his mother’s followers, three ageless alien women known as the Crystal Gems, in a wooden cabin attached to the ancient Temple which is their base of operations.
Each episode is just 11 minutes long, and they can vary quite widely in content – some are one-off adventures, some are slice-of-life incidents, some are flashbacks, and some form part of a gradually developing plot arc. The show’s economy of storytelling is remarkable – it puts me in mind of Jane Austen’s description of her work as a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush”. That these episodes sometimes include catchy songs up to three minutes long, performed by some amazing vocal talents, is further evidence of the series’ artistic vigour.
Steven’s three guardians are some of the liveliest female characters in contemporary children’s TV. Pearl, the eldest, is both a fearsome warrior and a protective adoptive parent. De facto leader Garnet is an almost completely unflappable figure with confidence both in herself and in Steven. And Amethyst, the youngest of the three by a few centuries, often appears to be an irresponsible older sister to Steven, but then reveals vital self-knowledge fitting to her role.
Six Thousand Years Ago
As I’ve been watching the show, a number of key details about the world that it reveals have grabbed my attention. I’m not about to argue that Steven Universe is a deliberate religious allegory – because I don’t think it is. But I do think it draws strongly, and apparently deliberately, on the scriptures and mythology of major western religions – especially Christianity.
A salient fact that emerges over the course of the first season is that the Crystal Gems’ superhero activities aren’t just generic acts of heroism – the monsters they fight and the intelligent enemies who oppose them are all part of the same alien species as the Gems themselves. The struggle to save the world isn’t waged against a series of one-off threats, but is the long tail of a war of rebellion started by Steven’s mother Rose Quartz, against the colonial actions of the Homeworld Gems. Unchecked, the Homeworld Gems would have destroyed all organic life on earth to make way for their own reproduction and armament. Amethyst herself was created as part of this activity, and rescued by Rose after her creators abandoned the project.
And what struck me as a former Bible scholar was the repeated assertion that the rebellion took place ‘about six thousand years ago’. This date has an obvious resonance with the estimated date of the creation story in Genesis, according to comparatively literal interpretations. The season 2 episode ‘The Answer’ provides a more specific date: the long flashback takes place 5,750 years ago, and is said to be set close to the beginning of Rose’s rebellion. For comparison, the current date in the traditional Jewish Anno Mundi dating system is 5776 – so unless Garnet’s idea of ‘close to the beginning of the rebellion’ is very vague indeed, the rebellion began very close indeed to the year AM 1. It would be wholly consistent for the Homeworld colony on earth to have been founded in AM 1, and for the rebellion to have begun shortly afterward.
And what is Rose’s role here? To me, the story of the rebellion is an inversion of the traditional story of Lucifer, as found in versions such as Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Diamond Authority, rulers of the Homeworld Gems, sent their emissaries to Earth to create a new world – a world of Gems, rather than humans. Amethyst’s assertion in the short film ‘How are Gems Made?‘ that “Gems aren’t born – we’re made” reflects Satan’s presentation of himself as “self-begot, self-raised”. Rose, like Milton’s Satan, found herself looking down into paradise – and entered into that world to get to know its inhabitants better. But whereas Satan in the poem seeks to undermine humanity in order to further his idea of the angels’ superiority, Rose seeks to save humanity, and all life on Earth, from the cataclysmic effects of the Homeworld Gems’ belief in their own superiority.
An inversion of the Genesis narrative does not form part of any modern expression of Christianity, but it was a central idea of many Gnostic sects in the second and third centuries AD, in and around Egypt. Of particular interest is a text called The Hypostasis of the Archons, or The Reality of the Rulers, which depicts an all-powerful female creator, Sophia, who is the true supreme deity. Her chief helper proclaims himself supreme god, and she in turn calls him ‘Samael’ – ‘blind god’. And after Samael enters into the physical world, it is Sophia who looks down into it, seeking to redeem it. The serpent in Eden is depicted as possessed by a ‘female instructing principle’ when it tells Eve to take the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This is is then followed by an exposition about the ‘archons’, who are essentially the God and angels of Judaism reimagined as deluded oppressors of an essentially perfectible spiritual humanity. This idea of humans as spiritual beings trapped by matter ruled over by callous or evil angels is arguably the commonest thread in Gnosticism, and appears in texts including the Syriac Hymn of the Pearl.
At first, Steven Universe seems to present each named Gem as distinct, but references begin to appear to each Gem as an example of a similarly-named caste: pearls, quartzes, and so on. The Homeworld Gems seem to imagine all life is like this; one of them asks Steven, “Have Stevens replaced humans as the dominant species on Earth?” The stratification of Gem society has definite echoes of the idea of the angelic orders, as found in the works of early Christian writers such as Pseudo-Dionysius and medieval Jewish authors such as Maimonides, with the huge, individualised Diamonds corresponding to the named archangels. The show’s depiction of Gem art from the rebellion era implies that there were four Diamonds, but that one has since been removed. This would echo the removal of Uriel from Catholic angelology in 745 CE; along with Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Uriel had been treated as a leading archangel. These four archangels had traditionally been associated with the points of the compass. In Milton, Uriel inadvertently helps Satan find Earth, reflecting the more ambiguous role that this character has been assigned since its official demotion. A conversation in ‘It Could’ve Been Great’ confirms that the Gems’ physical bodies, which are projections from their gemstones, adapt their behaviour so as to function consistently on any planetoid the Gems visit. This has some similarities to a conversation in Canto 25 of Dante’s Purgatory, in which the ‘airy bodies’ of the souls in Purgatory are said to reflect the identities of the souls that project them, and to have only the physical properties they need for the business at hand.
Even More Than the Two of Them
With Rose goes her loyal lieutenant, Pearl, whose role here mirrors Beelzebub as Satan’s foil in Milton. And the flashback in ‘The Answer’ tells the story of their first major recruit – Garnet. Garnet is revealed in the season 1 finale ‘Jail Break’ to be a fusion – the living embodiment of the relationship between two other gems, named Ruby and Sapphire. In ‘The Answer’ we see that this Ruby was just one of a squad of three virtually identical Rubies assigned to protect the aristocratic seeress Sapphire on her mission to assist the colony on Earth. When the physical forms of two of the Rubies are destroyed in battle by Rose and Pearl, the survivor fuses with Sapphire to briefly create Garnet. This act of fusing with a member of a different caste is viewed with abhorrence by the other Homeworld Gems, and Ruby and Sapphire flee into the wilderness. They get to know each other as
equals, and fuse again to become Garnet. In Garnet’s own words, “I was someone, and I didn’t know who… and then I fell.” There, in the unspoilt tranquility of the Earth, she meets Rose again, like Adam hearing the LORD, ‘walking in the Garden in the cool of the day’. In response to Garnet’s barrage of questions, Rose counsels Garnet that the answers lie within herself. Thus there is no fruit of knowledge here; like William Blake’s positive Lucifer-figure Orc, Rose emphasises self-knowledge and self-reliance rather than adherence to tradition. Orc, the ‘lover of wild rebellion’, draws on mythic archetypes including Odin and Prometheus, who suffer in order to bring knowledge to the mortal world. Prometheus in particular is an heroic rebel, defying heaven for the sake of men. Ultimately, the Answer which Garnet finds within herself is summed up in one word: Love.
This statement, at the end of ‘The Answer’, reiterates explicitly and in prose what had previously been expressed in song during ‘Jail Break’. There, the recreated Garnet sings to her oppressor Jasper that she is “made of love, and it’s stronger than you”. This echoes the Bride’s words in the Song of Solomon: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death”. Garnet’s song goes on to say:
But I am even more than the two of them.
Everything they care about is what I am.
I am their fury, I am their patience,
I am a conversation.
To my mind, this self-expression mirrors the traditional beliefs of the Western Church about the composition of the Holy Trinity. The persons of the Trinity – referred to by the technical term hypostasis – are united in an indivisible being characterised as Love (in reference to eg 1 John 4:8). St Bernard of Clairvaux, in a sermon about the Song of Solomon, expressed it like this:
Hence the bride is satisfied to receive the kiss of the Bridegroom… For her it is no mean or contemptible thing to be kissed by the kiss, because it is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit. If, as is properly understood, the Father is he who kisses, the Son he who is kissed, then it cannot be wrong to see in the kiss the Holy Spirit, for he is the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, their unshakable bond, their undivided love, their indivisible unity.
In the episode ‘Love Letters’, which deals a lot with the idea of romantic love, Steven specifically says of Garnet that “she is a relationship”. This echoes the saying attributed to queer Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, that “God loves relationships so much that God is a relationship”. And ‘Stronger than You’ has a clear echo of conservative Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson’s assertion that “God is a conversation”.
The relationship of the Trinity has also traditionally been characterised as perichoresis – a Greek term which means ‘dancing around one another’, which is literally how the Gems in Steven Universe give physical expression to their relationships. Ruby and Sapphire in particular do not do an elaborate and formal dance, as most of the other fusions in the show do; rather they do an informal dance of mutual joy culminating in a kiss, at which point they become Garnet. But as Garnet advises Steven in ‘Keeping it Together’, ” I embody… Ruby and Sapphire’s love. I’ll always exist in them, even if I split apart.” This echoes Jesus’ saying that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me”, which is one of the scriptural texts on which Trinitarian theology is founded.
Music and dance appear to be of particular importance to the Crystal Gems. Steven himself is a minor musical prodigy, able to sing, play the ukelele and compose the show’s theme tune by the age of about seven. He also has perfect pitch, which he uses to draw Peridot into a conversation about music at the start of ‘It Could’ve Been Great’. From this discussion it appears that the Homeworld Gems – at least in Peridot’s caste – are unfamiliar with the idea of music as we know it. But the Crystal Gems use music and dance for self-expression again and again, and the fusion dance is central to this. As an expression of interpersonal synchronisation and wordless harmony, the fusion dance evokes the words of Psalm 19 concerning the sounds of the heavenly bodies: ‘There is neither speech nor language, but their voices are heard among them.’ This concept was seen by early Christian mystics such as Boethius as analogous to the Pythagorean idea of the music of the spheres, or universal harmony – an expression in cosmology and mathematics of the universe’s inherent order and beauty.
This use of music is a sign of the Crystal Gems’ rebellion: where the Homeworld Gems are an essentially destructive force, the Crystal Gems are preservers and creators. The theme of angelic music as creation is a frequent one in Christian fantasy literature. J R R Tolkien’s account of the creation of Middle-Earth begins with Ainulindalë, ‘The Music of Ainur’, in which the celestial beings prefigure physical creation with a divine harmony. In The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, Aslan sings the new-made world of Narnia into being. And so in ‘The Answer’, Ruby and Sapphire sing to each other that ‘I think we made something entirely new’ by becoming Garnet.
It would be deeply unfair to talk so much about Steven Universe, and about Garnet in particular, without talking about the queer dimension. The Gems are officially a non-gendered alien race, but the physical forms of all healthy Gems resemble human women, in shape if not in size, and they all use feminine pronouns to refer to each other. So their relationships, to the extent that they are romantic, are inevitably seen as queer, and are often specifically characterised by fans as gay or lesbian. In Garnet’s case, though, her relationship is presented as being queer within the context of Gem society. Ruby and Sapphire are members of different castes, in a society which is rigidly class-based. In creating a fusion that crosses caste boundaries, and exists for emotional rather than utilitarian reasons, Ruby and Sapphire transgress against the social and moral norms of their species. Jasper refers to Garnet as a ‘shameless display’, and the reaction of Blue Diamond’s courtiers to Garnet’s creation in ‘The Answer’ is similarly outraged. Garnet isn’t just, as the fan saying has it, ‘a giant lesbian made of smaller lesbians’ – even in an all-female society, she’s the queer, the outsider, because of her identity and orientation. It’s fitting, therefore, that she is now the Crystal Gems’ leader. In the words of Psalm 118, extensively quoted in the New Testament, “the stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone”.
Giants in the Earth
It’s implied in several places that Rose and Pearl recruited other Gems to their cause during the rebellion, but almost all of them fell in battle against the forces of the Homeworld. The one other survivor is Amethyst, short, squat, and angry. Amethyst’s origins are being very gradually revealed in the course of the show. In ‘On the Run’, we learn that she was created on Earth, in a production site known as a ‘Kindergarten’. In ‘Too Far’, the Homeworld defector Peridot reveals that Amethyst is a member of a ‘quartz’ caste, and should have been the same gigantic size as the other quartzes on the show, Rose and Jasper. For a long time, I thought that Amethyst had no particular scriptural resonance, but there is a possible one here. Amethyst’s emergence into the world occurs some 500 years after the main action of the rebellion. This puts her in the biblical context not of the creation story, but of the events before the great Flood.
In particular, Genesis 6:4 says “There were giants (Nephilim) in the Earth in those days… they were great men, the heroes of old (HaGibborim).” In Genesis, the Nephilim are apparently created by the ‘Sons of God (Bene HaElohim)’ reproducing with human women. The traditional rabbinical explanation of this is that the ‘Sons of God’ are the righteous human descendants of Seth, or that ‘Bene HaElohim’ means ‘sons of rulers’. However, a popular alternative interpretation, as expressed in apocryphal books like 1 Enoch and Jubilees, is that the ‘Sons of God’ are an order of angels, and that the Nephilim are thus half-human hybrids. This interpretation crops up in modern fiction from Storm Constantine’s Grigori Trilogy to Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments. In Steven Universe, Gems do not typically reproduce with humans – they seem to consider it beneath them, and Rose’s conception of Steven is a unique event. But they do reproduce, by creating new troops in the kindergartens. And so Amethyst, a mighty hero and would-be giant, is the product of just such a reproductive act in the early part of the setting’s history. (There’s some alternative speculation on the Gems and the Nephilim on Chance McMahon’s blog.)
The Pearl without Price
Steven’s third guardian, Pearl, was his mother’s most prominent early follower. It’s in the treatment of Pearl that we first discover that each Gem is one of a series. Jasper refers to her as “some lost, defective Pearl” in ‘The Return’, and in ‘Back to the Barn’, Peridot confirms that there are many Pearls on the Homeworld. It seems that Pearls are created as servants and status symbols for high-caste gems; each of the Diamonds that has appeared on screen has had a Pearl in attendance. Pearl of the Crystal Gems is seemingly unique in having broken free of this servile role and worked to improve herself. Despite her martial skill and belief in the values of chivalry, Pearl nevertheless gladly does most of the domestic work involved in caring for Steven.
In ‘Sworn to the Sword’, Pearl reveals how her personal philosophy is influenced by the specifically human concept of knighthood. As she trains Connie to wield Rose’s sword, Pearl expounds her vision of knightly service in a song, ‘Do it for her’:
Deep down, you know
You weren’t built for fighting
But that doesn’t mean
You’re not prepared to try.
What they don’t know
Is your real advantage:
When you live for someone
You’re prepared to die.
Although it is clear from context that Pearl’s emphasis on self-sacrifice is inappropriate, she nevertheless conveys a message about loving devotion which has a very Christian flavour, and especially an idealised form of medieval chivalry. In her song, and the scenes which follow, Pearl repeatedly appears to confuse the present, in which Connie wants to fight alongside Steven, with the past, in which Pearl served Rose as a knight in battle. In doing so, she reveals her own unresolved grief at Rose’s absence, but she also expresses the devotional aspect of Christian knighthood, in which devotion to one’s liege lord or one’s lady is an earthly expression and image of devotion to God. Pearl’s confusion of Steven for Rose could be seen as a very strong form of this, in which the part-human Steven stands in for the unseen and unearthly Rose. But her words in the song also provide a double meaning with specific relevance to courtly love, and the spiritual inner meaning of a knight’s outward devotion to his lady:
You do it for her, that is to say
You’ll do it for Him.
Steven and Connie eventually rebel against Pearl’s martinet tendencies and her call for self-abnegation, showing her that they are stronger when they fight as a team than when Connie is made to defend Steven alone. This again echoes the message of ‘Stronger than You’, and Pearl concedes that they are right. Connie asks Pearl if Rose made her feel like she was nothing, and Pearl replies that “Rose… made me feel like I was everything”. To be loved by the all-loving is to be filled up, rather than emptied out.
Pearl’s name has further resonances relating to her character. In the Book of Revelation, the description of the Heavenly City is filled with references to gemstones. The foundations of the city include ruby, sapphire, jasper and amethyst. But in particular, “The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl.” And that seems to be one of the things that the Pearls of Steven Universe do – they are figuratively and sometimes literally gatekeepers. (Yellow Pearl definitely acts as a gatekeeper when Peridot tries to contact Yellow Diamond.) Pearl’s decision to abandon her former post and follow Rose Quartz can definitely be seen as a moral judgement against the Homeworld Gems, as expressed in the words of Psalm 84:10: “One day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”
Fruit of the Mystic Rose
Rose Quartz’s religious resonances don’t stop with her Lucifer-like role in the rebellion. As well as leading the surviving Crystal Gems after the rebellion’s success, she continued to explore and nurture life on Earth. She also apparently engaged in casual relationships with various humans over the years, though these were only ever superficial – at least on her part. This changes when she meets Greg Universe, a young travelling rock musician with a passion for space. Their relationship gradually deepens, and they spend several years together as a couple. And then Rose becomes pregnant. The show hasn’t yet revealed her precise motivation, but she leaves a message for her unborn son in which she expresses her enthusiasm for the diversity of life on Earth, and the uniqueness of every living thing’s experiences.
And the reason she has to leave a message for Steven is that, as she says in ‘Lion 3: Straight to Video’, “Steven, we can’t both exist. I’m going to become half of you.” Steven has, in his navel, the same gem that Rose had in hers. Rose has been absorbed – assumed – into her son. And it’s her role as the mother of this unique child that’s the key to her other key religious archetype – the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s as clear as it can be in a children’s show that Rose isn’t a virgin, and probably wasn’t before she met Greg. But her role and iconography show clear echoes of Mary’s depiction in art and popular culture. The ‘mystic Rose’ was a medieval title for Mary, and roses as a reference to Mary occur in hymns and carols to this day, such as ‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’, ‘There is no Rose (of such vertu)’ and ‘Es ist ein’ Ros’. Although Mary is often depicted all in blue and wearing a veil – a look which the show ascribes to Blue Diamond – there are also many images of her wearing pink (for instance in several pictures by Murillo). The Catholic and Anglican churches, in their cycle of liturgical colours, use a colour known as rose pink on the two Refreshment Sundays in the year, both of which have Marian connotations. And conversely, in the scene in ‘Story for Steven’ where Rose emerges from the Temple with Greg’s ‘Mr Universe’ t-shirt over her dress, the black t-shirt appears navy blue.
The use of roses in Christian symbolism persisted beyond the Middle Ages, both in the mainstream and among esoteric thinkers. During the European Enlightenment, a series of anonymous allegorical texts were published which expounded a mystical system which came to be known as Rosicrucianism. Rosicrucianism blends esoteric Christianity with elements drawn from the Hermetic tradition which originally flourished alongside Gnosticism in Egypt. It takes its name from the repeated motif of a Rosy Cross which occurs in these texts, and gives its name to their pseudonymous author, Christian Rosenkreuz. There is no fixed description of the Rosy Cross itself; some images feature a cross in the heart of a rose, others a cross with a rose at the intersection, and some are complex alchemical diagrams which only faintly resemble a rose. Christian Rosenkreuz is an essentially mythical figure, whose life and Chemical Wedding are allegorical portrayals of Christian esotericism.
The Chemical Wedding[PDF] is an early science-fiction novel which is itself filled with allegorical detail, and like Dante’s Divine Comedy, sends its narrator on an adventure during the Easter season which reveals hidden truths about the wider universe and the inner self. Among the images used is a lion, which conceals a sword, and offers visitors the use of a healing fountain. Prominent among the coded messages employed in Rosicrucianism is the word VITRIOL – the alchemical name for sulphates, especially sulphuric acid. This is interpreted to mean Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem – a Latin phrase meaning ‘Visit the Earth’s Interior; In Making Right You Shall Find the Hidden Stone’. This is evidently an allusion to the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, but it also describes the Crystal Gems’ motivation in season 2.
The idea of a healing rose is explicitly linked to Christianity in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story ‘The World’s Fairest Rose‘, in which a perfect rose is sought to heal a queen who is mortally ill. At the last moment, the queen’s son reads the story of Christ’s Passion, and it is revealed that the perfect rose springs from the blood shed on the Cross. The story about Amethyst that Steven relates in ‘An Indirect Kiss’ follows a similar arc, with the cure produced at the last minute – apparently through the actions of a weeping boy, but ultimately through the grief and sacrifice of the all-loving Divine. The weeping statue of Rose which appears in that episode recalls another strain of popular Christian mysticism: the belief in weeping statues of saints, especially of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A significant and relatively recent example is that of Our Lady of Akita, in Japan, which (like Rose’s statue) not only weeps but is said to cure sensory impairment.
Rose has two main symbols, aside from actual living roses: her battle flag bears an equilateral triangle with petal-like extensions; and her dress has a cut-out in the shape of a five-pointed star revealing her gemstone, which in turn has a pentagonal cut. The door to the Temple has five gems on it corresponding to Rose, Ruby, Sapphire, Amethyst and Pearl’s gemstones, arranged in a pentagonal shape. The five-pointed star seems to have been adopted by Rose’s followers after her disappearance: the Crystal Gems’ current outfits all incorporate this device, and Steven is rarely seen without his gold star t-shirt. The five-pointed star, or pentagram, is often associated with magical practices, but this derives from medieval Christian iconography, where it represents a human figure. With the point uppermost – as the Crystal Gems use it – it specifically shows a human with face turned upward to heaven.
Rose’s disappearance, and the subsequent ambiguity as to whether she is alive or dead, reflect the Catholic belief that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven without dying. This is seen as a specific example of the general power over death given to humanity by Mary’s son Jesus. And Rose’s role as mystic mother leads us on to examine the show’s focal character: her son, Steven.
What Child is This?
Steven is not only the viewpoint character, through whose eyes we see almost everything that transpires in Beach City and on the Crystal Gems’ adventures, but also the show’s moral core. Steven shows love and affection for all sentient beings – even ones he finds hard to get on with, like his younger neighbour Onion. Steven tries, like his mother before him, to redeem broken Gems and restore them to fullness of life. In ‘Monster Buddies’, although he ultimately fails, he makes more progress in trying to communicate with a corrupted Gem than anyone else. And Steven has magical powers to match his love of the world.
Firstly, Steven can create a protective bubble to cover himself and those near him. Secondly, he can summon a shield of magical force which can deflect attacks and which others can stand on. And thirdly, he has healing abilities. We’re told that Steven’s mother Rose had healing tears, and in ‘An Indirect Kiss’, Steven and the Crystal Gems visit a monumental statue of Rose which is said to cry the same healing fluid. As Steven tells the story of this statue to his friend Connie, he laments that he does not possess the same power. But Connie, who has been sharing a carton of drink with Steven as he relates this story, finds that by the time they have finished, she no longer needs her high-prescription glasses in order to see clearly. Steven has quite unwittingly healed her sight with his saliva.
As with the date motif mentioned earlier, this plot detail made me sit up. The events of this episode combine details of two specific healing miracles from the Gospels. The first is the healing of the woman with the perpetual hemorrhage, as told in Matthew 9:20-23 and Luke 8:43-48. In this story, a woman seeking to be cured touches Jesus’s clothing in a crowd, and is cured of her condition. In Luke’s version in particular, the cure happens the moment she makes contact, and Jesus is aware that power has involuntarily gone out of him. I have always found it striking that in this version the miracle apparently occurs without Jesus specifically willing it. The second story, which is echoed much more strongly in ‘An Indirect Kiss’, is the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida in Mark 8:22-26. Here, Jesus privately heals a blind man by spitting and washing the man’s eyes with his spit. It takes two goes for him to get it right; after the first attempt, the man says he can see people, but they look like trees. Jesus also heals with spit in Mark 7:32-35 and John 9:1-7, but it is the encounter at Bethsaida, with the gradual return of the man’s sight, which is most strongly reflected in Steven Universe. Steven goes on to heal with spit on purpose on at least two other occasions.
So is Steven meant to be a Messianic figure? To be honest, it’s pretty ambiguous. As I said above, I really don’t think the show is intended to be a religious allegory. But Steven’s identity as the unique child of one earthly and one heavenly parent invites comparisons, almost inevitably. Steven’s age was, for a season and a half, one of the show’s untouched mysteries. Given that the short film ‘We Are the Crystal Gems’ shows Steven aging significantly during the construction of the cabin that is to be his home, and then entering it looking much as he does at the start of season one, I had assumed that he had not been living with the Crystal Gems at the Temple for long when the season opens. I had facetiously suggested – based on Luke 2:41-50 – that Steven might have been twelve when he came to the Temple. But he looks rather too young for that. The season two episode ‘Steven’s Birthday’ stunningly revealed itself to be set on his fourteenth birthday, thus confirming that he was indeed twelve at the start of the previous season. But it also reveals that he’s looked virtually the same since he was about eight or nine, thus implying that the cabin’s construction began when Steven was about seven. So the question of whether his age is relevant in scriptural terms remains just as ambiguous as ever.
Just as Garnet’s composite nature can serve as a metaphor for Trinitarian theology, Steven’s heritage makes him a natural subject for questions about the Incarnation. In mainstream (Chalcedonian) Christian thought, Jesus is held to have two natures (ousia) – human and divine – but only to be a single being (hypostasis). It’s not at all clear from the show so far whether Steven has a separate ‘gem’ nature or not. There’s been a lot of fan theorising about what would happen if Steven were to be sufficiently badly hurt that he regenerated (if he could) from his gemstone, but the show has provided no firm data. (The first volume of the associated comic book contains a scene where the Crystal Gems discuss this question, but no conclusion is reached.) A recurrent theme in season two has been Steven’s dad Greg bonding with Connie over their shared identity as ‘human beings’, in contrast to Steven’s more ambiguous nature. It may be that Steven’s nature will be more akin to the Miaphysite position – that Jesus had one, hybrid, nature. It’s reasonably clear that we cannot apply a Monophysite approach, in which Steven would be just like the other gems, with a single alien nature. And there’s no obvious reason for a Nestorian model in which there are separate ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’ persons inhabiting a single body, to go with the two distinct natures. (Contrast Garnet.) But for the time being, the Crystal Gems consistently treat Steven as sharing a nature with themselves, while the human characters are significantly more ambivalent. In a character interview on the website Newsarama, Greg says “there’s never been anyone like him, and he really is a Gem and a human at the same time”.
Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness
Early in Season 1, Steven gains a powerful new companion in the form of a magical pink lion which he names Lion. Lion emerges from the desert, unbidden and unexpected, and gradually bonds with Steven over the course of the episode. When the Crystal Gems first encounter Lion, Steven insists that he’s tame, but Pearl says that that is impossible. In support of Pearl’s words, Lion obstinately refuses to do tricks for Steven.
But the encounter with Lion is clearly anything but a chance meeting, and he comes to visit Steven more and more often. Lion’s roar is a powerful weapon against Gem enemies, and can also create portals enabling him to travel long distances. The first time he demonstrates this power – while also running across the surface of the sea – Lion takes Steven to a hidden armory whose contents suggest a close link to Steven’s mother Rose. And subsequently, Steven discovers an extradimensional space inside Lion’s mane, where various items associated with Rose are found – including her sword, the t-shirt Greg gave her, and the video with her message to Steven.
Pearl, who had thought of herself as the only keeper of Rose’s secrets, is upset by Lion’s apparent familiarity with them. But while Lion’s nature remains largely mysterious, it’s clear that he is some kind of emblem of Rose’s continuing presence with Steven. In theological terms, such a manifestation is called a theophany – such as the pillar of cloud and flame which shows God’s presence with the Children of Israel during their exodus. And Lion’s character – friendly but not tame, powerful yet reserved, bestowing weapons on child heroes, and able to come and go as he pleases – resembles the Great Lion Aslan in C S Lewis’ semi-allegorical series The Chronicles of Narnia. The name Aslan is simply the Turkish for ‘Lion’. As well as specifically being a Christ-analogue in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is a divine figure in the series more generally, the son and representative of the distant Emperor Over The Sea, and thus another form of theophany.
(Rebecca Sugar, the creator of Steven Universe, has said that elements of Lion’s iconography were inspired by the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, after a conversation with Hellboy author Mike Mignola.)
Militant Here In Earth
During the early part of season 1, fans were curious about the appearance of a dark-skinned girl in a sun-hat and glasses in the show’s title sequence. She was clearly intended to be important, but there was no sign of her in the first few episodes. Eventually, episode seven, ‘Bubble Buddies’, introduced her as Connie Maheshwaran, a bookish girl of about Steven’s own age. As soon as he meets her, Steven saves Connie’s life by using his protective bubble power. In her subsequent appearances, she is shown forming a deepening friendship with Steven. By episode 46, ‘Open Book’, they are close enough that in exploring their shared love of a series of fantasy novels, they are comfortable casting themselves as the books’ romantic couple – although they disagree about the portrayal of that relationship in the novels. And in season 2’s ‘Steven’s Birthday’, Steven clearly envisions marriage for himself and Connie in the future, as he worries that ‘when Connie grows up and becomes president what is that gonna make me? First Boy?’
As Steven’s closest human companion apart from his father, Connie exemplifies interactions between the divine and the mortal. She’s cured of her poor vision by Steven’s saliva, a miracle which the episode title itself refers to as an Indirect Kiss. (There’s a double meaning there as well, because Steven’s relationship with his mother is necessarily indirect.) A superficial application of the idea of Steven as a possible Messianic archetype would therefore equate Connie with Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus cured of demonic possession, and who went on to be his most prominent female follower. Apocryphal gospels and other, later writings often depict Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife or other intimate partner – the Gospel of Philip specifically mentions them kissing each other on the lips. But I think this is excessively literal.
As with my examination of Rose, my approach to Connie draws on the traditional mystical symbolism of the Western church. The church itself is sometimes referred to as the Bride of Christ – a term which draws on Revelation 21:2 – “And I, John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” And this is how Steven encounters the idealised image of Connie in his mother’s room in the Temple in ‘Open Book’ – standing amid rose pink clouds, wearing a white bridal gown. But the episode subverts this imagery twice over – first when Steven, thinking this eidolon is the real Connie, says he thinks she’d rather continue the story of a fight for justice, causing her to replace the wedding dress with adventuring garb. And again when the real Connie confronts her double – who again wears the white dress – she is wearing her own version of the same warrior-mage costume.
What does this mean? Connie is not an idealised heavenly bride, like Dante’s Beatrice (a girl the poet had a crush on in his youth, but who died young) – rather, she is a fighter, an earthly human being. (The word ‘human’ appears to have a common root with ‘humus’, hence its derivation is something like ‘earthling’.) And so she stands not for the heavenly Church Triumphant, but for the earthly Church Militant. In ‘Lion 2 – the Movie’, she arms herself with Rose’s sword, a weapon both physical and spiritual, after Steven recovers it from Lion’s mane. (Compare Revelation 1:16 – ‘Out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword’.) And in ‘Sworn to the Sword’ she dedicates herself to be Steven’s follower as a knight. If ‘An Indirect Kiss’ was an image of Baptism, with Steven helping to refill a sacred pool and then using water with the same divine properties to heal Connie, then this is the image of Confirmation. Connie kneels before Pearl, Rose’s most passionate follower, to offer her service and receive acceptance as a disciple, prepared to be obedient even unto death.
But the reversal at the end of that episode points to another way of discipleship, and another sacramental analogy. Steven doesn’t want Connie to fight for him; he wants her to fight with him, alongside him as a comrade. Steven does not want to be put on a pedestal, as Pearl clearly does with Rose. He is a human himself, as well as a Gem, and sees Connie as an equal partner in the struggle. And through his relationship with Connie, Steven has an unprecedented experience of partnership. Like Ruby and Sapphire, Steven and Connie spontaneously fuse together while dancing on the beach. Their combined self, dubbed ‘Stevonnie’ by Amethyst, presents Connie with an experience of communion unlike that of any other human, even Greg. Thus transfigured, Stevonnie goes down into the town, and is unrecognised by the townsfolk. There is a passing similarity with the story of the Road to Emmaus, in which the resurrected Jesus is met by two of his disciples, who do not recognise him all afternoon, but only when he breaks bread with them at dinnertime. Stevonnie buys doughnuts from Lars and Sadie, who are both awestruck by the apparent newcomer’s grace. And they attempt to share the food, leading to a moment of awkward awareness of what it means for the two to have become one flesh. Stevonnie, like Steven, has Rose’s gem in their navel. This reminder of Rose is emblematic of much of the spiritual connotation of Communion in Christianity – in sharing bread, worshippers are united with God, as well as with other Christians around the world, and with those who have gone before or are yet to come. And by exhibiting properties of Steven, Connie, and Rose in one being, Stevonnie provides an earthly analogue of the Trinity, akin to the presentation of the Holy Family in Murillo’s Heavenly and Earthly Trinities.
Those Who Go Down to the Sea
There is one Gem who is neither a Crystal Gem nor a supporter of the Homeworld: Lapis Lazuli. Trapped for thousands of years in a magic mirror, she fears and distrusts both Gem factions, blaming them all for her poor treatment. In her refusal to take sides in the central conflict of the story, Lapis resembles the angels chasing the whirling banner in Canto 3 of Dante’s Inferno, who are placed at the outermost edge of Hell for refusing to follow either God or Satan.
Lapis shows probably the greatest magical power of any character in the show: she can command water. Even when injured, she is capable of drawing up an entire ocean to carry her into space on a pillar of water. (Compare Genesis 1:9: ‘And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place’.) She moulds the water into clones of the Crystal Gems, and can thus hold her own against all of them simultaneously. And when Steven heals her, she sprouts wings of water which enable her to travel through space faster than light. Steven’s encounters with Lapis are filled with Biblical imagery. In ‘Ocean Gem’, when Lapis steals the sea, Steven, Connie, Greg, and the Crystal Gems travel across the dry sea bed like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea in Exodus. Their journey leads them to a great wall of water, like those described as being on either side of the Israelites as they cross over. When Lapis finally launches herself into space, not only does she have angelic wings, but we see Steven from her perspective, ‘gazing up into heaven’ like the disciples after Jesus’ Ascension in Acts 1:11.
When the column of water is released, Steven’s protective bubble again enables his family to pass dry-shod through the depths of the sea. But they haven’t seen the last of Lapis. A desperate message sent by her from the Homeworld reveals that she is coming back. And Lapis is brought back by the Homeworld Gems, ‘humbled… having the form of a servant‘. With her come the technician Peridot and the brutal quartz Jasper, who has imprisoned her. The Homeworld Gems are initially victorious. The Crystal Gems are captured, but Steven’s unusual nature enables him to rescue them. (This rescue, incidentally, evokes the concept of the Harrowing of Hell, a legendary event in which Jesus, after dying on the cross, storms Hell and releases virtuous souls imprisoned there.) Lapis, though, true to her nature as an abstainer, refuses the rescue. In the subsequent chaos, Peridot escapes, and Garnet defeats Jasper in single combat. But Jasper finds Lapis and coerces her into fusion, seeking to match Garnet’s strength directly. Lapis sprouts her wings and tries to escape, but Jasper drags her back to earth. However, Jasper has misunderstood twice over: not only does Garnet’s power come from love rather than fear, but Lapis has deceived her attacker.
As soon as their monstrous fusion, Malachite, is formed, chains and manacles emerge from the ocean and bind her, dragging her to the bottom of the sea. This devastating, though temporary, victory over the first season’s fiercest antagonist evokes the imagery of Revelation 20:1-3:
I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient snake, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended.
Lapis, as the angel controlling the Abyss, is content to bind Jasper there for as long as she can.
As of the latest episodes, another central Christian theme has emerged: that of reconciliation. Faced with the imminent emergence of the hideous Cluster – another instance of an evil bound up until a predicted time – the Homeworld Gem Peridot rejects the authority of Yellow Diamond and allies with the Crystal Gems instead. Peridot is originally introduced as an antagonist, and her character is cold and callous. Early on, Steven witnesses her commanding a group of small robots, and remarks that “the little ones are like her babies” – immediately before Peridot deliberately stands on one of them and destroys it. Her path to becoming a Crystal Gem has been slow so far, but the episode ‘Message Received’ is a clear turning point for her. In rejecting Yellow Diamond, Peridot shows metanoia – a term which in psychology means self-healing after a breakdown, and in Christianity is usually translated as repentance. The word ‘repentance’, however, comes from a Latin root relating to punishment. Metanoia, from the Greek, more closely reflects Hebrew (and Arabic), in which the relevant word means ‘return’. In Acts 2:38-40, metanoia is the first step towards salvation – a turning away from the sins of the past and positive orientation towards what is right. As such, it is the beginning, not the end, of a personal journey. Time will tell what form that journey takes for Peridot.
And this returns us, finally, to the theme at the heart of the show: that love is the inner truth of life. As Steven sings to Peridot in ‘It Could’ve Been Great’, “Is there anything that’s worth more / Than peace and love on the planet Earth?” These words are seen to spur Peridot towards her decisive act of renunciation, but the idea has been with us all along. Steven first summons his shield when he feels the Crystal Gems’ love for him in getting him a special treat. Steven saves Connie’s life from falling rocks when he first approaches her, and heals her sight as they share a drink and talk about Steven’s concern for the people whom he loves. Garnet’s whole being is created and driven by an animating love. Pearl’s love for Rose and Steven drives her to be a knight and a surrogate mother. The love and acceptance that the former hermit Amethyst receives from the Crystal Gems binds her to them, and inspires her to make peace with Pearl time and again after their personalities clash. As Garnet says to Steven when he asks her what ‘The Answer’ was, in the episode of the same name, she simply says: Love.
So is Steven Universe a religious allegory? On balance, I think not. But both in theme and in specific details, it partakes of religious, and specifically Christian, concepts very heavily. To some extent this is the case of many works written in an essentially post-Christian cultural environment. There will almost always be turns of phrase, mythic resonances, or passing allusions. But to my mind Steven Universe goes beyond that. It’s got its own mythology, self-consistent and well-developed, which mirrors elements in Christianity whilst also having its own distinctive character. And the centrality of love as a theme is essential. This isn’t love as a poorly-defined superpower, but rather as a thread that draws together the diverse episodes and elements that give the show its depth. And it’s that, rather than the outward similarities and possible symbolic allusions, that gives the show its relevance for me as a Christian. I believe in Steven.