The Avengers, The Gospel, and Christian Movie-Watching

The Avengers, The Gospel, and Christian Movie-Watching May 22, 2012

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:

1. On the one side, hyper-conservative Christians who will watch pretty much nothing. I don’t just mean that they have standards for their families (I’m all in favor of that), but they will insist that mature Christian viewers who watch something they consider “worldly” are allying themselves with the flesh and the devil. They have no sense of perspective and (usually) a very shallow sense of excellence and art.
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.

I have lots more to say on Christian movie-watching, but for now, I think this has been a good way to set up my approach. I’d love to hear your thoughts—do you agree or disagree?

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  • quartet-man

    God can speak to someone however he wishes. He used a donkey. I never saw any real messages in the Avengers. I had never thought about Superman sort of being a Christ-type figure, but I understand there are some parallels after hearing about them. I did however, see some similarities in the Christian life when I watched Spider-man. I even wrote about it in a newsletter article back in the day. 🙂

  • It’s possible to pick up interesting or applicable things even in light entertainment. That’s why I like Frank Turk’s analogy to a “walking book of Proverbs.” My point is just that it’s not always necessary to do a “Christian reading” of everything. I would be interested in seeing that newsletter article though. 🙂

  • There are definitely Christ-like allegories in Dick Donner’s “Superman” films, but I think that Bryan Singer went a little too overboard when he made “Superman Returns,” especially when he has Lois say, “The world doesn’t need a savior….”
    I loved “The Dark Knight” (I’m a huge Batman fan). I can see some message in that movie containing gospel tones, but I don’t think that you can compare Batman taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes to Christ (after all, Batman was the one who killed him, even if indirectly).

  • Of course, that’s another issue—when the film-makers themselves are consciously forcing those elements into the story. More often than not it comes off rather ham-handed, especially in a context like Superman. I am always interested in finding films that are mainstream, yet handle Christian themes with true dignity and insight.
    _The Dark Knight_ was really well-made, and of course Heath Ledger’s firebrand performance is just… indescribable. Beyond disturbing and beyond brilliant at the same time. However, I was somewhat put off by the moralizing. In particular, I rolled my eyes at Dent’s little catch line, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” In a word, rubbish.

  • roy

    I get what many of the comments are saying. It hard to find faith and the Christian message in movie from hollywood, it doesn’t mean we don’t try. It’s just who we are we want to find redeeming moments to watch this kinds of movies and at time we do, but a majority of time its counter to what we believe as Christians. I love the avengers it was long but it kept me so captivated. I guess the comment Captain America said before he lept out of the jet and the reaction of the audience in the theater when Cap said it was very telling, they clapped and cheered. What we need is more movies with a strong Christian message but it won’t come from Hollywood.

  • Marcus

    Yes! I do agree! I have been a “born-again” believer since I was 13, and understand exactly what you mean! In fact, I am also an avid Comic Book fan, having collected them almost as long as I have been His! It is simply a wonderful, entertaining, and exciting film (and clean I might add!) However, to “strain” the movie, in order to catch a “gnat,” is going a little overboard! Thank you for your insight

  • Thanks Marcus, I really appreciate the comment. Yes, I personally thought the movie was a blast, and I also appreciated how clean it was. Granted I always find exaggeratedly kick-butt female characters like Black Widow a bit irritating (as someone who’s not on board with the feminist agenda), but actually I liked the fact that she remained just a professional kick-butter, if you will, and never became a sex object for the male characters. Granted, it is PG-13, but nowadays you can’t trust a movie not to have sexuality in it just because it’s PG-13.

  • I think perhaps part of the problem is that Christians feel a compulsion to watch whatever other people are watching at the moment, because they want to feel up-to-date. Consequently, they spend their time watching sub-par material and trying to analyze that, instead of seeking out and analyzing films that are actually worthwhile. Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a look at recent films that seem promising (I enjoyed a number of films that came out last year, particularly War Horse and The Artist), but the problem arises when you begin watching almost exclusively new stuff, including inappropriate stuff.
    Ah yes, “There’s only one God ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” That’s a really, really cute line, but again, I don’t think it’s anything more. The reaction you described is interesting though. I wonder if it’s because some of the people in the audience were Christians and liked the reference, or if they were just Captain America fans who figured that would be the kind of thing he would say and thought it was a fun character moment.

  • Yankeegospelgirl, you hit this one spot on. In fact, I might go a bit farther (further?). Man’s (in the generic, non-gendered sense) fascination with culture heroes and deliverance from “bad guys” is cross-cultural. Can we, as Christians, recognize that as reflecting man’s (again in the non-gendered sense) lifelong struggle with sin, with identifying right and wrong, and with hoping that right will prevail? Of course. But we should never expect non-Christians to act like Christians (whatever that might mean, and sometimes Christians are not social examples of right-doing). For us to look for the Gospel in every artistic endeavor reveals considerable insecurity within ourselves about the efficacy of the Gospel. I cannot bring redemption to anything by trying to find the Gospel in it. Only God redeems, and it seems clear that the Gospel message is that God redeems people, not movies or paintings or books or . . .

  • I do think that heroism and the battle between good and evil, if portrayed well, is a good thing. So I don’t think it’s necessarily problematic to be generally drawn to that sort of thing.
    However, I think you’re onto something about insecurity. I’ll try to expand on that, and maybe you’ll agree with me here: When it comes to the intersection of theology and entertainment, I see a pattern of glorifying “messiness” in art among the sort of Christians we’re discussing. This is consistent with a glorification of “messiness” in general—in Christianity, in life, etc. They sing the praises of entertainment that is “complex” or “realistic” (yet in their opinion also “redemptive,” however horrific it may be), because they want to vindicate this idea that nothing is cut and dried, that salvation is “messy,” that the Bible is “messy,” and you’re a simplistic Philistine fundie if you criticize that sort of art. They like the idea of “Christianity on the edge,” that you’re constantly “running back and forth” on the narrow road, because that’s more dramatically satisfying for them than the quietly upright Christian who never wavers in his faith all his life long. This then becomes the framework within which they approach everything, including and perhaps especially art.

  • Filmmakerken

    Life is messy. If it weren’t we wouldn’t see our need for salvation. Drama stems from conflict, which is messiness. The parable of the Good Samaritan features extreme violence and a hero who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. The Story of King David involves violence, sex, murder and redemption. The story of Joseph depicts violence, slavery, nudity and the power of God in adversity.
    Ironically, the two groups of people the author speaks of will both stay away from a “Christian” films that depict the messiness of life. The first group’s reasons are obvious. The latter group, however, are often rather hypocritical in that they’ll watch sex and violence (sometimes graphic scenes) in secular films but won’t tolerate it in anything labeled “Christian,” even if it’s comparatively mild.
    Faith-based films tend to be stale because Christian filmmakers (and/or the Christian financiers funding the film) are afraid to depict messiness. We don’t need to avoid it, we need to learn how to portray it without being too graphic. As a filmmaker myself I can tell you that’s a difficult task.
    Should we, as Believers, wallow in the muck (or the filmed depiction thereof)? Of course not. But if we avoid it altogether we’ll never encounter those who are stuck in it and won’t be able to point them to salvation.

  • Thanks for commenting. I think we may have some disagreements, but I also think you are misreading me to some extent. I plan to write more on this topic in which I flesh out where I come down on some of these things. If you don’t mind, I may even use your comment as a starting-point.
    For now I will just say that I’m all in favor of deep, enriching films that present truth and beauty in a compelling way, and I recognize that this can be accomplished well even when the film-makers are not Christians. I appreciate the fact that you as a film-maker have a desire to make good art without succumbing to the standards of the world. That’s a healthy perspective to have. On the other hand, I think you may underestimate the slippery slope nature of this obsession with “messiness” that I see emerging in the Church. I saw a pastor saying that he gets blind-sided in the theater by an unexpectedly graphic film experience about once a year, which can sometimes leave him visibly shaken/disturbed. However, he is never willing to say, “That was a mistake. I should have found out ahead of time what I was letting myself in for,” because he scorns the entire notion of screening objectionable content ahead of time. He would rather take the risk of having his mind filled with vile images. But what he will never do is go see a film that seems “stupid” (i.e. not artistically worth his time), which presumably would include faith-based films like Courageous.
    I think this pastor is a prime example of what I’m trying to warn people against.

  • Lydia

    No, the story of Joseph does not “depict nudity.” It says that Joseph left his garment in the hand of Potiphar’s wife and fled. Even if this does imply that he was naked when he fled (which it may or may not–people aren’t always completely naked if the end up without one of their pieces of clothing), the phrase “depicts nudity” is highly misleading. The Book of Genesis is not _Lady Chatterley’s Lover_. If we Christians want to be smart and savvy, we should realize that it is not actually smart and savvy to start using facile phrases from somewhere or other, like, “The Bible depicts nudity,” “the Bible has sex and violence,” and so forth.

  • Absolutely, and that deserves its own post, which is why I didn’t even get into that in my preliminary response.

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