Straining for the cosmic Christ

Benjamin A. Plotinsky, managing editor of City Journal, has written a 4,000-word essay on Christian themes in science fiction. An editor at a respected journal gives serious attention to a theme otherwise restricted to fan sites — normally this would be cause enough for rejoicing among the editors of GetReligion.

What’s disappointing about Plotinsky’s essay is his tendency to see any allusions to Christ — whether his virgin birth, his crucifixion or his resurrection — as central to a film’s message. So, for instance, comes this paragraph that combines a plot narrative from Superman with biblical proof texts:

“You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior,” Superman himself tells Lois, “but every day I hear people crying for one.” Isaiah 19:20: “When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior.” Later, as Superman tries to save the world from Luthor, the villain plunges a Kryptonite dagger into his side. John 19:34: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear.” And then, after saving the day by hurling Luthor’s death machine — a rapidly expanding new continent that threatens to destroy the United States — into outer space, a poisoned and exhausted Superman plummets to earth, his arms outspread at right angles to his body and legs, a crucified figure lacking only a cross. He remains in a coma until his son (Lois Lane is the unwed mother in this updated Superman: don’t ask) restores him to life. He leaves his hospital room empty until a nurse discovers it, just as Mary and Mary Magdalene find Jesus’s empty tomb.

Plotinsky discusses the Matrix series without once mentioning the concept of gnosticism. He’s aware of Joseph Campbell’s importance in shaping the Star Wars story arc, but he seems unaware of pantheism or panentheism. He describes Star Trek, which Gene Rodenberry happily connected to a secular utopianism, as primarily a story of the Cold War.

Plotinsky’s essay will be great fodder for people who see biblical themes between the lines of almost any screenplay or who believe that God speaks directly through any well-made film. What it lacks is an informed vocabulary to describe how non-Christian filmmakers borrow Christian imagery — sometimes elegantly, sometimes awkwardly — to spread non-Christian messages. Such writing does justice neither to Christians nor to non-Christians.

Print Friendly

  • Cedric

    I have the same tendency to overinterpret things Christ-wise, but the SUPERMAN RETURNS parallels are TOO obvious & I read an interview where director Bryan Singer admitted to them.

    I had a big disagreement with a friend over whether or not the FORREST GUMP scene where Lt. Dan jumps off the boat into the water is a Baptism scene. My friend later admitted I was right & it was. I will grant the my view of the floating feather being an allusion of John 3′s “The wind goes where it goes, so are all who are born of the Spirit” may be stretching things.

  • Jerry

    I did not find some of Plotinsky’s points compelling. He is overly focused on the film world and minimizes the extensive religious written literature and even TV stories.

    For example, I tried to read “The Gospel according to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier” by Gabriel McKee some months ago. That book covered the same ground in a comprehensive but unfortunately somewhat tedious manner, at least to me. But if you want to read a reference book on the topic, that is the closest I’ve come to finding one. I would also suggest the somewhat incomplete wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_ideas_in_science_fiction that has sections on eschatology, heaven, hell, original sin and other topics.

    Religious themes on TV include Babylon 5, for example, which had quite a religious basis and even some explicitly Christian stories such as a story about a priest who was asked to perform an exorcism in the “Lost Tales” DVD.

    What it lacks is an informed vocabulary to describe how non-Christian filmmakers borrow Christian imagery — sometimes elegantly, sometimes awkwardly — to spread non-Christian messages.

    That’s certainly a possible motive, but there are other explanations such as non-Christian filmmakers using archetypes in their stories which parallel a number of Christian formulations.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Jerry, I did not intend my final sentence as a statement about filmmakers’ motivations. I don’t use non-Christian interchangeably with, say, anti-Christian.

    Many non-Christians, such as Stephen Spielberg, tell outstanding stories and sometimes draw on Christian imagery.

  • Jerry

    Jerry, I did not intend my final sentence as a statement about filmmakers’ motivations.

    Then I mis-read your motive. When you wrote borrow Christian imagery — sometimes elegantly, sometimes awkwardly — to spread non-Christian messages. since I took that as a statement that the motive of the film maker was to spread non-Christian messages and the method was by using Christian imagery.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

      Fair point, Jerry. My use of “to spread” was a bad word choice.

      Here’s a bit of an improvement, I hope:

      What it lacks is an informed vocabulary to describe how non-Christian filmmakers borrow Christian imagery — sometimes elegantly, sometimes awkwardly — while teaching different messages.

  • http://www.augustiniandemocrat.blogspot.com John Brandkamp

    Doug,
    Jim Herrick has written extensively on this very subject, both in last month’s Christianity Today cover piece as well as in his book “Scientific Mythologies”. Much of modern myth-making uses Christian terminology and imagery, but import religious concepts that are many times diametrically opposed to basic Christian teaching. I do think that there’s something inevitable about scifi’s use of religious/spiritual imagery considering its genre.

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    I was pretty struck at the time by the Christian images in that Superman movie:
    http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/062706dnrelsuperman.1a0bc51.html

    My lede from back in 2006:
    Call it The Passion of Kal-El? Superman Returns, which opens Tuesday night, is splashed with enough Christian imagery for a cathedral full of stained glass windows.

    The movie’s director is Jewish. So were the two teenagers who created the Superman character – based in part on Jewish sacred stories and legends – in 1932. Nonetheless, obvious images from iconic Christian art and stories are as common in this film as product placements are in most summer blockbusters…


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X