God and The Avengers

Like much of America and the world, I shelled out $10 to see “The Avengers” this weekend and I wasn’t disappointed.

Writer/Director Joss Whedon managed to take what could have been an unwieldy superhero story with a lot of characters – and turn it into an entertaining, funny, action-packed film with well-integrated themes about courage and sacrifice. Unexpectedly, the movie even included a couple of moderately religious moments, both of them inspired by the primary villain, Loki, who considers himself a god (though he’s really only an egomaniacal, megalomaniacal powerful alien windbag with self-confidence issues and a helmet with horns.)

In one scene, Captain America is told that Loki and his superhero brother Thor are “like gods.” Cap’s response: “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” It was a funny quip and true to character for Captain America who represents traditional values and beliefs. The script even appears to acknowledge that our modern society could use some of those “old-fashioned” ideals and values again.

The second incident has a little more depth. It occurs when Loki attacks a large group of people in Germany and forces them to kneel before him. Like many villains, Loki gets a high from subjugating people who are physically weaker than him. Pompously, he says to the crowd, “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity: that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s freedom in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”

Following this line, an elderly man in the crowd stands up bravely and says, “Not to men like you.”

Loki responds, “There are no men like me.”

The old man concludes,”There are always men like you.”

The fact that this line is spoken in Germany, harkening back to World War II’s mad tyrant, has obvious political undertones. But looking at it from a Christian viewpoint, it has religious implications as well. Kneeling before God is a traditional aspect of Christianity. Jesus humbled Himself before the Father and His followers are called to do the same. It’s an act of humility we’re supposed to willingly take on out of love as opposed to a forced act of subjugation. In Christian tradition, therefore, submitting to God’s will instead of our own is seen as a good and necessary choice that helps us fulfill our natures and our destinies. In that context, kneeling is a good thing, a freeing thing. It’s led well-known people like Mother Teresa to serve the poor all her life – and lesser-known people like Katie Davis to do the same. It doesn’t mean we check our brains at the door. Just the opposite, in fact, because discerning God’s will from the will of wolves in sheep’s clothing can take a lot of brain power.

As I was watching the scene in the movie unfold and the old man first stood up, I expected a comment from him about how human beings are never meant to follow, that we’re autonomous individuals who shouldn’t submit our own will to anyone else. That’s why the exchange surprised me. It didn’t say that at all. It just made a comment on the type of person – and perhaps unintentionally, the type of God – we’re supposed to follow.

One of the reasons I was surprised at this scene was that Joss Whedon has admitted he’s an atheist who tends to see God as a “sky bully.” This is a common misperception among atheists that springs from a superficial reading of the Bible and a narrow understanding of religious faith. Even the prolific defender of the faith, Father Robert Barron, has acknowledged that if God were actually the type of deity the new atheists believe He is, he wouldn’t want to believe in God either.

Yet here is Whedon – staying true to his character instead of his own ideology – giving a shout out to God through Captain America. Then he goes on to acknowledge there are times in life when it’s appropriate to kneel and be a follower. He probably didn’t intend to make any theological implications here because, in the film, The Avengers come to trust Captain America to be their leader and therefore follow his orders. But the scene between Loki and the elderly man should hold different implications for believing Christians.

In some of his other work like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly,” Whedon has exhibited Catholic sensibilities when it comes to portraying suffering, sacrifice and even grace (though I doubt he’d call it grace). This now carries over to “The Avengers” which includes some thoughtful moments that should resonate with religious viewers.

About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

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  • tz

    Joss Wheadon is under-appreciated. I think he is a very good case for natural law being written into all men’s hearts, and he can read it and do the right thing even if he is denying it with his lips. He sharpens the contrast between right and wrong. There might be errors, but no relativism.

    Buffy, Angel, and Firefly/Serenity had a dark side, but the world is fallen. As much as I might prefer to escape to the saccharin good and evil battles of yore, the real world isn’t that way. Justice is something to be striven for, and hard. Fair doesn’t happen even when it is worked for. Heroes do the dirty work to set the world right and receive only disrespect and pain, yet that is the right thing to do.

    (light spoiler alert) Loki keeps getting rudely interrupted in the middle of his lines, usually by some projectile or Avenger acting as such. The best scene was when the Hulk took on Loki during one of his insufferable speeches. I won’t go further other than to say the audience applauded.

    • David Naas

      Villians Always monolog — it is why they became villians, so they could do it.

  • http://popsophia.blogspot.com Thomas Beyer

    Often there is a disjunct between what an artist intend to accomplish and what he actually does. “The Stranger,” for example was supposed to be Albert Camus’ magnum opus proclaiming the superiority of atheism and nihilism to the world. It turned out to be just the opposite.

    An artist’s intent is irrelevant. An artist’s inspiration comes from the world, the reality around him. If he manages to be successful in translating that inspiration, that vision into a concrete work of art, if he manages to “incarnate” the soul of the work present in his imagination in actual matter, the work of art itself cannot help but be a product of the world, of the truth and reality the artist was inspired by, even though he may not have known it. In other words, art is not mere propaganda, a platform for the artist to spout his political convictions in a symbolic code. Nor is art a vehicle for the artist to “express” himself, communicate his personal emotions. No, art is a vehicle for truth, a bodily incarnation of the invisible and spiritual truths of the world around us.

    Joss Whedon’s work, considered as it is in itself, is proof of Whedon’s amazingly traditional, true, Catholic imagination. It’s a shame he can’t see that. But it is often true that artists make the worst critics, especially of their own work.

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  • Justin Moore

    Respectfully, you seem to be reading very wishfully into the second example. You have taken a refusal to kneel as to “men *like you*” (though I think you heard it as “*men,* like you,” somewhat undercut by the character’s other comment) as some sort of tacit advocacy that kneeling is okay, as long as it’s not Loki or Hitler. This alone is a stretch, but then you go the step further to suggest that, “Well, that just leaves God!” I’m sorry, but none of this follows.

    It should also be noted that Mother Teresa didn’t “serve” the poor, she served God and the church. Read her own words. She had a harsh contempt for the poor, believing their poverty was ordained by God and that it was not her place to alleviate it but rather to use it to convert people to Catholicism. She was never ambiguous on these points, but the media myth that surrounds her also shielded this fact from her many admirers.

    I also understand that people like to portray submission in a Christian context as un-coerced, but that is simply not the case. Both old and new testaments are full of harsh condemnations for heresy, apostasy and un-belief. In the old testament it was tied to ethnicity (as religion was at the time) and a laundry-list of genocidal acts ordered by God. In the new testament it is the ever-present specter of Hell and Christ’s consistent insistence that salvation was only possible through himself. If Christianity is true, then this is God functioning as his own surrogate to demand submission and worship. If Christianity is not true then it is necessarily the ravings of a mad-man, a point that C.S. Lewis so brilliantly made in the course of his otherwise less-than-brilliant apologetics.

    In either case, your statement, “It’s an act of humility we’re supposed to willingly take on out of love as opposed to a forced act of subjugation,” makes little sense. Setting aside the fact that it is expected regardless of love (as the Bible makes clear, fear and ambition are equally acceptable), the fact that it is expected in any sense means it is at least on some level coerced. An act of submission, we find, is always an act of submission no matter how you dress it up.

    Regarding Mr. Whedon’s beliefs, I’ve little doubt that his reasons for not believing in God are the same most atheists: the evidence simply does not support the claim. It is only after one comes to such a conclusion that he or she begins to appraise the moral content of religion. I personally steer clear of terms like “sky bully” because it gives the wrong impression about why I don’t believe (allowing Christians to assume that I’m “just mad at God”), but I would be hard-pressed to call the appellation inaccurate.

    • jimmy

      There is no evidence that disproves the existence of God.

    • Tony Rossi

      Justin – Though I disagree with you, I appreciate the fact that your response was civil and thoughtful.

      In terms of your problem with what I said about not kneeling to men like Loki or Hitler, but being okay with kneeling to a benevolent God – In reality, we all submit our own wills to the will of other people all the time. Parents make sacrifices for their children. Spouses make sacrifices for each other. Students make sacrifices so they can excel in a particular subject or work area. In a larger metaphorical sense, all those people are “kneeling,” or denying their own will for a greater good or the good of another person. It’s the classic hero’s quest, whether it be Harry Potter being willing to die for his friends and the world – or Buffy being willing to die to save Dawn (I’m assuming you’re a Whedon fan and know what I’m talking about. If not, sorry for the spoiler). My point is that people are willing to deny their own desires for a greater good. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, God is the greatest good. We ultimately kneel before God, therefore, not because He forces us to do it, but because He is the greatest good and has our best interests at heart. Consider Alcoholics Anonymous members who submit their addictions to a higher power because they’re not able to control them. Submission again is a cry for help and done in pursuit of a greater good (overcoming addiction).

      I understand your point about kneeling out of fear and ambition. I would say that fear and ambition are viable starting points for some people who need to evolve toward making the choice out of love. Example: When a student is in school, he is forced to study subjects, some of which may not interest him. He may initially do it because he’s afraid of getting a bad grade. Ideally though, he will eventually come to enjoy learning (at least in some subjects). The student evolves from doing something out of fear to doing it because he’s genuinely getting something out of it. Evolution isn’t just a scientific idea; it takes place in the moral and spiritual realms as well. Using an Avengers example, I would say Tony Stark evolves over the course of the film from being involved with the group more out of a sense of ego, power or duty – to ultimately being willing to sacrifice his own life out of love for a greater good. If Jesus threatens some people with hell to get them on the right path, I would ascribe it to those people being in a place spiritually where that is what they’re most likely to respond to. In other parables like that of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal son, Jesus goes out of His way to convey the fact that we’re supposed to love everybody regardless of what they’ve done or what their religion or ethnicity (the Samaritans being enemies of the Jewish people at this time). I know history is full of Christians who fail to live up to this ideal, but that doesn’t make the ideal unworthy of being strived for. That’s why it’s also not a good idea to cherry pick certain Bible quotes (which I know Christians do too) instead of looking at the complete story which is actually pretty complicated and complex. People study the Bible and theology for years and still discover new things and ideas all the time. I’d also add that just because someone who is Christian says or believes something doesn’t mean that’s the official stance of Christianity.

      I would also disagree with you that the moral content of religion – or at least Christianity which is the religion with which I’m most familiar – is poor. I would say that the moral content of some Christians is poor, but not the content of the religion itself which has led people like William Wilberforce to sacrifice greatly in order to end the slave trade in the British empire, and whose ideas eventually led to the same here in the U.S. Wilberforce was one of those people who actually understood what the Bible is saying, not a Christian who twists the Bible to suit his own views.

      In terms of not believing in God because the evidence doesn’t support the claim, I would say that science is the study of the natural world. God, by His very definition, is supernatural and outside of nature (and again, a much more complex Being than the old man with the beard hurling lightning bolts like he’s often depicted or imagined). Science can point to God, but not necessarily provide you with the type of evidence you’re looking for. Mark Shea has an interesting take on it in his book “Making Senses Out of Scripture” if you’re interested.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      • Liz

        excellent response Tony!

  • S.K.

    Thanks for writing this article! I really enjoyed the reading and can’t wait to see the movie.

  • Ben

    Many people have missed this one: Thor, when he first meets with Loki, discusses the good ruler versus the bad ruler. He draws attention to Christian and Platonic concepts of the good shepherd; that the true and good ruler is a servant for the good of those he rules and that Loki’s concept is backwards.

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