Some of you might be groaning already at this post’s title. It’s okay, I know what you’re thinking. Read on.
Lately I’ve become more and more irritated as I watch how Christians react and respond to film. It seems to me that Christian moviegoers are dividing into two rough “branches,” or groups. Not everyone falls into one of these groups (myself included), but from a big picture perspective, this is what I see:
2. On the other side, Christians who will watch pretty much anything, because they claim they can find “redemptive themes” in pretty much anything, from the innocuous to the horrific. They’ll go see something no Christian has any business watching and come back saying, “Well God spoke to me in a powerful way through this character or that plot twist, and I realize this film isn’t for everyone, but all stories are part of the Great Story and I can see the gospel in dark places too,” etc., etc., etc. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t movies that would fit that description, and even movies where I think reasonable Christians could differ on questions of appropriateness. The problem is that these people apply it to films that, as I said, no Christian has any business watching.
To illustrate what I see as the “seed” of this perspective, I’m going to start with a film from the innocuous side of the spectrum: The Avengers. I read a column by pastor and Gospel Coalition member Mike Costner in which he was trying to do a “gospel reading” of the film. Using the superheroes’ weaknesses as his central theme, he does his best to wring profound meaning out of a decidedly not profound piece of art. He winds it up thus:
In the strange world of the Bible, we know that weakness comes before strength. The mustard seed becomes the mighty tree. The shepherd becomes the king. God himself becomes a baby, suffers in every way like us, and dies a criminal’s death, yet that death becomes the catalyst to the liberation of countless captives of sin…
Inevitably, a satisfying hero story will always involve a great, gospel-like reversal, where the odds seem insurmountable and the heroes seem overcome. But the tide turns, the heroes rebound, and evil retreats a universe away. Somehow, that story never gets old.
Now when I read a phrase like “great, gospel-like reversal” in this context…I just sort of chuckle. I know what Costner is trying to get at, and earlier in the column he does discuss one scene in the film that could be an interesting conversation-starter about how Satan tries to tear us down with our own sinful past. But I feel an overwhelming urge to respond, “Shucks, lighten up. It’s a comic book movie!” No more, no less. I’m not going to tell my fellow Christians they’re being worldly by watching The Avengers, because I have a sense of perspective and I recognize that it’s just harmless popcorn fluff. But I don’t insist on taking away something deep and meaningful from every movie I watch either, and I certainly don’t insist on finding “a reflection of the Great Story” (as people will sometimes put it) in every smaller story. That’s just wooden and shallow. We should enjoy everything in its proper place and not to try to make it more than it really is.
I was encouraged to see that Frank Turk of Pyromaniacs gets it on this point, and he left some comments on the Costner piece that capture my own thoughts very well. This paragraph sums it up nicely:
The Avengers are more like a walking book of Proverbs than they are an exposition of the Gospel, a kind of piecemeal manual on how to live, than aspects of the greatest hero of all time, the son of a carpenter and of King David and of God, who conquered death by dying for the lost. They tell us about ourselves, and if we miss that, we do the art itself a disservice.
In further discussion, he pointed to various heroic/virtuous actions that are played out in Avengers and other comic-book films like Captain America and said that while we can appreciate them as heroic/virtuous actions, this doesn’t necessitate that we read them as “Gospel-esque.” This is particularly a strain when the makers aren’t remotely Christian. And it can just become downright silly. “Well, at the end of The Dark Knight, Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes for the good of the city so that Dent’s reputation can remain clean while he becomes an outcast. Sort of reminds you of someone else who was rejected for crimes he didn’t commit…” See what I mean?
But here’s the thing: I think often these attempted Christian readings of innocuous material are just the beginning. They’re indicative of a certain mindset, a certain approach to art that extends much further up the spectrum. If you do enough of these “readings,” you begin to think of yourself as this very profound, insightful sort of person. And when you go to apply this approach to something that is not innocuous, but unlike The Avengers is posing as serious art, you justify it to yourself by saying, “I could even get something gospel-esque out of The Avengers, so I shouldn’t have a problem getting something gospel-esque out of this.” That’s an excellent way to become worldly, really worldly. Worldly in the sense that you allow the world to shape your standards and your perspective, to the point where you’ll make excuses for just about anything. And this is where we return to my point two.