Going Beyond ‘Yay! It’s a Christ-Figure’

Recently I’ve adopted a new parody catchphrase that goes something like this: “Yay! It’s a Christian story.” This phrase seems useful for affectionately sarcastic observations such as:

  1. (Quote from a review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) “Soon after Gandalf comes to Bilbo, 13 dwarves show up, a biblical number.” Yay! It’s a Christian story.
  2. An episode of the sadly short-lived Green Lantern: The Animated Series quoted from 1 Cor. 13 and showed “greater love.” My own reaction: Yay! It’s a Christian story.
  3. In Oz The Great and Powerful, the wizard crashes and prays, “Get me out of here and I’ll do great things.” Later: “Thank You. You won’t regret this.” Yay! It’s a Christian story.

People suspect that is exactly how a story becomes Christian: pray to God, quote a Biblical phrase, or even have a “Biblical number” of something. For those who believe this is my Father’s world, with our Father’s work in nature, Scripture, and math, this is a partial truth. Yet it can be hijacked into forced attempts to find subtle Biblical references in stories.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane — no, it’s a Christ-figure.

Now many are doing much the same in macro, most recently with the Superman film Man of Steel. I’d predicted some “Yay! It’s a Christ-figure” responses to this — an easy prophecy. But I didn’t expect the frequent media discussion and debate over the film’s overt Christlike callbacks, and intentional distribution of talking points to “Supe” up church sermons.

Here I assume that yes, the filmmakers intended Superman as a “Christ-figure,” because:

  • The director and scriptwriter said they knew/endorsed the similarities
  • The film stressed this often, once even showing our hero during a Gethsemane moment, in front of a stained-glass window showing Christ in the original Gethsemane moment (Now that is overt; not even the Kendrick brothers have done that.)

Thus Christians’ question should not be, “Does this story include Christ callbacks?” but, “How do we view these callbacks and what do we do?”

First I suggest two things we should not do:

  • Gleefully proclaim, “Yay! it’s a Christ-figure.” Possible translation: “We still matter in the world. The cool filmmaking people think the Bible is hip and Jesus is hip, so now we can sell Jesus more easily and also sell ourselves.”
  • Skeptically say, “Ridiculous, Superman is not like Jesus Christ.” Possible translation: “Secular stories that reflect Biblical themes have no value as cultural touchpoints.”

Instead I suggest four responses Christians should consider:

1. Be naturally cool about Christian themes in culture.

Here our model may be the apostle Paul in the famous Areopagus discourse of Acts 17. Seeking a conversation-starter sermon with pagan Greeks, Paul chose to start with two Athens pop-culture elements: the altar to an unknown god (their open question) and statements by Greek poets (their imagined truth-claim about the gods).

We don’t read of Paul cheering the unknown god altar-builders or the pagan poets for their wisdom. Never in his epistles does he say, “Isn’t it amazing that the Greeks already have Gospel reflections in their culture? When you’re sharing Christ, always start there!”

Instead, Paul seems to take the whole thing in stride, as if beforehand he thought, “Well, of course their culture will have echoes of God’s truth and beauty. I’ll refer to the touchpoints, which is easy. Then I will move on to begin subverting them — not to the point of giving an immediate altar call and John 3:16, but to the point of getting them to enjoy asking further.”

2. Realize that Christ-echoes in culture are actually common.

Or: When everyone is a groundbreaking new amazing evangelical Christ-figure, no one is.

Christians get too thrilled about messianic heroes in popular stories.

My point is not to deny these heroes exist or that they in various shades reflect Christ. My point is that these heroes are not so rare that we must bounce off walls each time we find one.

Even evil people will reflect God’s image, such as by giving good gifts to their children (Matt. 7:11), thanks to God’s common grace to all. Bad people will also sacrifice for others. And bad people, because they still recognize goodness, will create wonderful stories in which heroes give good gifts to children, sacrifice for others, and serve as “Christ-figures.”

By presuming this phenomenon is rare, Christians look silly, and may even start to burn out or become wrongly skeptical about the whole “finding God in popular culture” practice.

3. Reject attempts to over-industrialize the “use” of Christ-figure stories.

Here I’ve used the trendy words “organic” and “natural” with purpose — to discourage the Evangelical-Industrial Complex from working apart from or with storytellers to promote the latest greatest Christ-figure story. No, projects such as the Man of Steel sermon notes are not sinful — but they should shame us a bit. Why should we need a machine to get Christians to engage good stories, which we should enjoy naturally, not only to use?

4. Compliment and critique each new cultural Christ-figure.

Let’s not fully accept or reject stories’ Christ-reflecting heroes. Each one is subject to many views and interpretations — especially if the Christ-figure is shown as a flawed hero.

For example, many say about Man of Steel, “Superman is like Jesus!”. No, rejoined Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition blog, who insisted Superman should be more like somebody’s dad. Both views seem subjective, and miss a further degree of separation between a story’s Christlike hero and Christ Himself.

Here we apply truth of humanity’s cultural mandate, in which man as subcreator imitates God as Creator. By making up flawed yet good heroes for our stories, we’re not inventing Christ-figures, but Christ-figure figures — we’re showing reflections of ourselves reflecting Christ. Thus: Christ the Hero > humans as heroes > human-made heroic characters.

Another word for Christ-figure is Christian. So in all our praise or criticism of Christ-figures in stories, let us not neglect this: The only direct Christ-figures on Earth must be His people.

E. Stephen Burnett is a journalist, aspiring novelist, and editor and webslinger at Speculative Faith. His mission: to explore and enjoy epic stories that reflect the truths and beauties of the first and greatest Epic Story, God’s Word. He also enjoys nonfiction, soundtrack music, and spending life with his wife in their central-Kentucky headquarters. His nonfiction works have appeared in numerous local media as well as the Reuters wire service.

About E. Stephen Burnett

E. Stephen Burnett is a journalist, aspiring novelist, and editor and webslinger at Speculative Faith. His mission: to explore and enjoy epic stories that reflect the truths and beauties of the first and greatest Epic Story, God’s Word. He also writes for a dynamic news franchise in Austin, Texas and delves into Christ-and-culture doctrine at Christ and Pop Culture. He also enjoys nonfiction, soundtrack music, and spending life with his wife, Lacy, in their Texas headquarters.

  • John W. Morehead

    Evangelicals have an unfortunate tendency to see Christ figures where they are not there. Gordon Lynch has called for theologians to be cautious in this
    area:

    “An adequate dialogue between theology and popular culture thus requires
    what Michael Dyson has refered to as an ‘ethical patience,’ in which the
    theologian does not make hasty judgments about what they find tasteful
    or distasteful, or try to impose pre-existing concepts on to popular
    culture. One example of the latter are books and articles that attempt
    to identify ‘Christ-figures’ in contemporary film. To suggest, however,
    that Edward Scissorhands or the Preacher in Pale Rider are
    ‘Christ-figures,’ though is to impose Christian symbolism on to these
    movies in a way that fails to hear what these movies are saying on their
    own terms. Serious theological reflection on popular culture goes
    beyond te superficial identification of religious themes and symbolism
    within it to a more substantial dialogue between cultural texts and
    practices and wider theological questions and resources.”

    See my blog post on this here: http://www.theofantastique.com/2007/03/15/cautious-consideration-of-christ-figures/.

    Another
    helpful resource is an article by Christopher Deacy in the Journal of
    Religion and Popular Culture titled “Reflections on the Uncritical
    Appropriation of Cinematic Christ-Figures: Holy Other or Wholly
    Inadequate?” Deacy questions the appropriateness of a criteria for
    identifying Christ-figures in film developed by Kozlovic in an article
    in another issue of the journal. He calls for a new approach to
    theology-film studies and suggests the following to cinematic
    interpreters:

    “Instead
    of concluding that a film is, or is not, theologically significant
    because of the perceived presence, or absence, of a Christ-figure motif,
    the theologian should be much more open to the possibility that a film
    does not require explicit or overt religious ideas or imagery in order
    to be amenable to religious or theological interpretations.”

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    Two ways a Christ-figure can get into a movie or story: first, the creators mean to put the figure there, which is the happily admitted motive of the Man of Steel writer; second, the heroic figure gets in there by accident, by virtue of being even a dim reflection of the ultimate Hero.

    Here I make a Romans-1 argument God has ensured that creation, surely including the subconscious structure of the “hero’s journey” story itself, will reflect His nature and some of His Story of which He is Hero. Therefore we can credit Him for all manifestations of the “Christ-figure” in fiction, without giving loud hurrahs as if this is extra-special or as if all artists mean it.

    We may praise an artist who gathered wood and used it skillfully to carve a brilliant statue, yet we don’t praise him as if he planted the whole forest.

  • John W. Morehead

    I appreciate this. Nevertheless, Evangelicals should critically reflect on the possibility of reading Christ figures where none is present. A more careful theological engagement with culture is called for, as Christopher Deacy has articulated in his essay mentioned in my first post.

    One more point of interest: the photo accompanying this post is the Jesus statue from Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, thus representing a Mormon icon.

  • danallison

    Fantastic comment, I totally agree. The Bible is the ultimate “hero-story” so it’s only natural that any hero-story would at least be a dim reflection of the Christ story. It’s no big deal, and totally agree that stories/films must be assessed on their own terms. In “Cool Hand Luke” there’s scene where the Newman/Luke character’s arms are spread out like the crucified Christ. My film crit teacher ecstatically pronounced that this made the character a “Christ-figure.” Well, of course. And, so what?


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