Theology at the Movies

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Summer is the time for big blockbusters at the theater. Movies are fun, at least partially because they allow us to escape for a short while from our less-than-satisfying reality. However, movies also speak volumes about the state of the culture. Many conservative Christians sharply criticize movies with morally objectionable content because they think that such films will lead to the practicing of the type of sin displayed on the screen. Undoubtedly there is truth to this claim. Nevertheless, it is also the case that movies serve as a mirror of where the culture already is, not simply where it is going. It therefore follows that Christians can learn much about the broader culture from movies, especially very popular movies. Let me illustrate this point with two examples. Two of the biggest films of Summer 2007 were Spiderman 3 and Transformers. In what follows I am not necessarily encouraging you to watch these movies. Rather, my hope is that we learn to see such cultural products as a window into the collective mind of our society. I’ll try to analyze the movies without spoiling them for those who haven’t yet seen them and have a desire to do so.

Some critics faulted Spiderman 3 for its many overlapping plots. It appears that the main plot is the internal struggle within Peter Parker, symbolized by the battle between Spiderman and Venom. Will Parker continue to act selflessly and use his great powers responsibly? Or will he use his powers to attain that which he desires with no regard for the concerns of others? In the end, as you could guess, he does what is right and saves the day. Reflecting upon his experiences, Peter Parker, in the last line of the film, states, “Our choices make us who we are and we can always choose to do what’s right.” Both parts of this statement are problematic. The first proposition – “Our choices make us who we are” – seems self-evident enough, but if taken as a summary of human existence it is terribly lacking. One of the great modern lies (stemming from scientific naturalism, I believe) is that humans have no nature, no essence. We are thus free to do as we wish, to remake ourselves, indeed to pursue our own self-actualization to infinity, so long as we do not infringe upon the pursuit of someone else. In contrast, the Christian worldview asserts that humans have a nature, and that our choices are the result of our nature. As our Lord said, “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35). Parker is right that our choices make us who we are, but it is also the case that who we are determines our choices. This leads into the second half of Peter Parker’s statement – “we can always choose to do what’s right.” The problem with this assertion is easier to see and follows from the above discussion. The Bible unequivocally declares that, as a result of the Fall, we have corrupted natures and therefore are prone to sin. Augustine stated it even stronger: natural man is non posse non peccare (“unable not to sin”). Peter Parker was wrong. We cannot always choose to do what is right.

In my estimation, Transformers was an even less satisfying movie than Spiderman. Lingering at the center of the movie is a tacit contradiction, a contradiction that well represents one of the great cultural fissures of our day. The background to the movie is that a very advanced species of aliens evolved into shape-changing robots. Eventually there arose a civil war between two groups of these so-called autobots. The military leader for the ‘good’ side is Optimus Prime. He is thoughtful and virtuous. Optimus Prime’s fundamental belief is that freedom is the right of all sentient beings. However, given the assumptions of the narrative, there is no metaphysical grounding for this assertion. If one assumes a narrative of atheistic evolution, and a corresponding worldview of scientific naturalism, there is no ultimate moral justification for valuing life. Indeed, intrinsic value of any sort is impossible. In fact, the evolutionary process favors the weeding out of the weakest organisms. If evolutionary theory is true, the weak should die so that the strong can live and further the species. Optimus Prime should stop trying to save the humans and join forces with the ‘evil’ Decepticons.

So there you have it – superheroes, robots, and in the midst of it all a little bit of theology. So the next time you’re watching that movie, listen closely because you might just gain a glimpse into the false assumptions of our age. May we have ears to hear well what the culture says so that we can speak faithfully the truth to the world.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Theology at the Movies

  1. Jed

    Interesting post. You highlight some interesting phrases from Spiderman, especially “Our choices make us who we are.” You think that this statement is an outgrowth of naturalism, and perhaps you are right, but the first thing that came to my mind was the existentialist mantra popularized by Satre: “existence is prior to essence.” That is to say, we are not born with some predetermined essence or nature, but develop our essence as a result of our free choices.

  2. Matt

    Jed,

    Thanks for the comment. I thought of existentialism as I was writing the post, but didn’t bring it up because I know less about it. It is true that this sentiment is present in existentialism, but isn’t it also in naturalism, since existentialism is a sort of reaction to naturalism?

  3. Adam Winters

    Oh, Matt, you take my childlike fantasies and you demolish them into the existentialist Darwinian spawn from which no good can muster! :-)

    Seriously, though, you bring up some very good points. I am reminded that I have to be discerning and critical of everything that brings me enjoyment. Spiderman 3 (I didn’t see Transformers), I believe, makes various good points about human nature that a Christian can appreciate (see my own blog post on the matter). As you have pointed out, it also has fundamental flaws.

    The Christian must not fool himself into thinking anykind of fiction or media can do perfect justice to the truth of Scripture. Even Narnia and Tolkien’s middle earth have their theological shortcomings as well. It is unfortunate that Calvin or Augustine never applied themselves to fiction. Maybe if they’d have spent time in jail like Bunyan they might have had more time on their hands, right?

    Nevertheless, I continue to appreciate the Spiderman series for its relative merits, even if I won’t be bringing them up for good sermon illustrations anytime soon. As for the question of “satisfaction,” I suppose I was satisfied with the movie in one sense, namely what I expected it to be (a good, interesting story that concludes a triology). But, of couse, I knew I could never expect it to satisfy my spiritual criteria that is only filled by the revelation of Scripture.

    Perhaps one imperative to ponder is how much should we expect out of big-budget Hollywood movies. To what extent can we write them all off as Pelagian rehash? On the other hand, is it any better to submit them to a Procrustean bed, choosing what we can appreciate and rejecting the impurities? Or are we really better off staying home and reading books? At the end of the day, what are Christians with creative energies to do? Is this a mandate for us to take up the mantle of Schaeffer’s challenge to redeem the arts and all of culture through rigorous engagement and creativity?

    Good post, Matt. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my armada of questions. And I apologize for being a little facetious, because I’m just trying to pick your brain.

  4. Joseph Gould

    “May we have ears to hear well what the culture says so that we can speak faithfully the truth to the world.”

    Very fitting conclusion! Something I thought of as I was reading your post is that movies are the new books.

    What I mean by that is prior to film, books were the primary ways of spreading philosophy to the masses. Today, books have lost much of their standing in larger society as such a small percentage of the population reads anything anymore. If we want to interact with the philosophy of this age, one of the greatest areas in which to do so is through the movies. Not that we must necessarily watch every movie, but we need to be informed of the major plot and theme of the important ones (such as Spider-Man 3 or Transformers).

    For an example of why, at UPS there are thousands of college students, and they don’t read anything. If I am going to try to bring up their philosphy or worldview, I don’t have much to work with which gets them interested. However, everyone saw Spider-Man. And they want to talk about it. I now have a philosophical conversation starter.

    Thanks for the great and well-thought through post. Sorry for the long comment. I broke one of the rules of posting (if you have a really long comment, make a post on your own blog!)

  5. Adam Winters

    “I broke one of the rules of posting (if you have a really long comment, make a post on your own blog!)”

    I think I need to do a Spiderman 3 2.0 post.

    Ok, Matt, after you get around to answering my first question, I want to see you tackle the Harry Potter phenomenon!

  6. Matthew

    Great points, guys! Adam, I will attempt to do justice to your barrage of questions. To begin with the tone of my post might be misunderstood. I spend most of my time critiquing the movies, but I do not think that this means that Christians should not watch them. As you pointed out, we shouldn’t expect theologically rigorous movies from major Hollywood studios. Occasionally it happens, but not often. Nevertheless, I think that Christians can legitimately enjoy art produced by non-Christians. The point that I attempted to make is that we must consume cultural product with discernment. If we want to speak the gospel faithfully, I believe that we have to listen to the culture discerningly. And finally, yes, I do believe that Christians should assume their responsibility to make good art instead of merely critiquing ‘worldly’ art. Maybe this helps clarify the discussion a bit. For a more in depth example of what I tried to do in this post, check out Drew Trotter’s talk on the 5 nominees for best picture of the year in 2005: http://www.veritas.org/3.0_media/talks/370.

  7. Matthew

    Joseph,

    You’re largely right about the role of movies in society. I think it was Plato that said the city that doesn’t have poets is doomed to die. In a manner of speaking, I think that cinema has taken the place of poetry in our culture. However, I also want to maintain the priority of books. Even if significant books don’t touch the masses, they often influence the smaller group of those who consume so-called ‘high culture’. Many of the cultural gatekeepers come from this high culture. In other words, the ideas presented in books eventually filter down to the masses, even if they are not directly consumed by the masses. Christians should be working to interpret culture at both levels, as well as producing good cultural product at both levels.

  8. Joseph Gould

    Matt,
    I agree completely that Christians should seek to understand both high (such as books) and low (such as movies). I hope I didn’t imply otherwise. Again, good post.

  9. Tyler

    I believe that we have to take into account the source material from which these “films” have been made. Spiderman 3 was a fine example of horrid film-making because it wasn’t only untrue to its source material, but it was unsuccessful in this divergence.

    I don’t want to talk about Spiderman, though. I think you hit it on the head, Matt. Transformers is another matter, from my perspective.

    Quite frankly, I think we’re expecting too much of a movie made from action figures. Directed by Michael Bay. You can know nothing about Transformers and if you are cognizant these two facts, you should know not to expect much from this summer CGI-fest. Certainly don’t expect theology.

    I agree with your assessment of the underlying worldview, but I’m highly doubtful that the screenwriters were even aware that their film was going to have an ontological agenda. That’s giving this film too much credit.

    It was pure cheese. I enjoyed it because I grew up watching Transformers and playing with the toys. That was back in the 80s when TV shows like Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Ninja Turtles were nothing more than 30-minute advertisements for action figures. Companies like Hasbro simply caught on to what George Lucas was privy to all along: products can always breed products.

    Michael Bay created a two-hour diversion to remind us all how silly and fun these products were . . . in the form of another product. However, reading too much into what was essentially a capitalization on 80s marketing schemes runs the risk of giving too much weight to action figures.

    However, I do concede that any film can serve as a window into the culture (regardless of how silly they are).

    I’ve said too much about nothing.

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