After I saw Captain Marvel, I read two contradictory Christian reviews—both from writers I follow and respect.
The first was the opposition from Greg Morse at Desiring God. Next came some very high praise from K. B. Hoyle at Christ and Pop Culture.
Morse at Desiring God argued the movie could show a stronger-than-all woman swooping in to save the failing men, when all hope is lost in the battle with Thanos. He suggested this could encourage men in our society to remain weak, passive, and cowardly in their God-given role as a protector.
(Beware Avengers: Endgame spoiler here: I’m glad that Captain Marvel didn’t end up being the savior in Avengers: Endgame, although I would agree that, before the film released, many fans expected she would be.)
By contrast, Hoyle at Christ and Pop Culture felt female superheroes are necessary to encourage women to have agency, and to drive back the culture of misogyny still much alive in America.
I bring only these two opinions to front because they likely represent how the Church is responding to this film. Both of these writers contributed wisdom to this ongoing discussion on feminism within our society, and, more specifically, Christianity. Yet there are a few important things to note about both of these perspectives when deciding where to land.
1. They’re addressing different audiences.
We all see feminism in different ways, depending on our own connection or experience with feminism. But we often attack weaknesses within our own subculture without regard to others in different parts of the country (or world).
Morse is speaking to the wider, secular culture living under extreme forms of feminism. For example, see the kind of feminism that advocates for killing babies. Meanwhile, Hoyle is addressing the culture living among misogyny, such as alt-right areas and fundamentalist Christianity (which, admittedly, are far more pervasive beliefs than we previously thought).
Which side should be addressed? Both, because they are both wrong and contrary to the gospel.
2. They’re overstating their point.
In only addressing one side of a problem, we tend to place blinders on and fail to moderate ourselves when necessary.
As Hoyle points out well, Morse is (perhaps unintentionally) giving the impression that women should sit on the sidelines and wait for a man to come along and protect her. Not only is that not biblical, it’s not even practical. What if she happens to be alone, an unmarried woman, or even a single mom? What should she do? Meanwhile, Hoyle implies a rather low view (again, unintentionally?) of the roles of a male protector and a female helper within complementarian theology (which I can’t tell if she believes or not).
3. They are not nuanced enough.
Whether we like it or not, this is an ethical discussion, and ethics requires nuance.
For example, we can say God hates divorce but we can’t pass judgement on a divorced person without knowing the exact details of their situation. Is Captain Marvel someone to emulate? This is not a yes or no answer. We must be able to dissect the film and character and admit that Danvers is only an appropriate role model in some ways.
The same is true of any other superhero. Secular films, while attempting to address important cultural issues, will only be able to accomplish that in part (often with a great, big helping of secular propaganda).
In making a stand for the importance of pop culture and fiction, we must be careful not to imply that they are wholly good. They can’t be. Apart from Christ, humans will only ever be able to produce a shadow of the truth. It isn’t our job as culture aficionados simply to get people to watch geeky movies and read geeky books, but to get them to both appreciate and think critically about these things. When we feel compelled due to recent cultural shifts to make blanket statements without proper nuance (i.e. “This movie is good and/or bad because feminism.”), we cut off at the knee our ability to think critically.
So where is the biblical balance about women in battle?
Let’s take a look at Deborah and Jael as an example of biblical, feminist icons. You may have heard female superheroes described as Deborah-types, but how true is that? Judges 4 describes the ultra-godly and wise Deborah judging Israel. Barak goes to her, and she calls him out about not going into the battle God ordered him to. Then Barak tells her he’ll go, but only if she goes with him. Deborah answers, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).
The woman she’s referring to is Jael (verse 17), who tricks Sisera, commander of the Canaan army, into her tent. Sisera, thinking he was safely hidden, falls asleep and Jael hammers a tent peg through his temple.
Judges can be difficult to interpret, since it is written in mere descriptive, factual accounts without moral commentary. What we don’t actually see is Deborah fighting. She went with him, but whether or not she was swinging a blade on the front lines of war, we can’t know for sure—although I doubt it. What we do know is that she is condemning Barak’s request. This likely means she knows Barak is being cowardly by asking her to go, and that he is using her as a good luck charm to win the battle. Because of these errors, cunning Jael will be remembered for defeating Sisera, not Barak.
Is this passage encouraging women to fight in war? That’s a stretch. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Deborah points out Barak’s cowardice in not having enough faith to go into battle without her by saying the glory will not go to him. When we compare this with Jael’s strength, depicted here as crafty and intelligent, we hardly see Scripture advocating women being included in combat units.
Instead it seems to be giving a beautiful image of what a true female helper looks like. The word helper in Genesis 2:18 often gives us visions of piles of clean laundry and dirty dishes. That is nowhere near accurate. In fact, the same word is used more often in the Bible to describe God himself. Women as helpers is not a subordinate role, but an equal, essential one. And in the case of the battle in Judges 4, it meant life or death.
So does the Bible imply a prohibition to female superheroes? Not at all. Like K. B. Hoyle said so well, “They must know they can be agents of change—that their voices are as loud and as true, their strength and dedication just as valued and valuable, as their male counterparts.” Amen!
My father, a black belt in kung fu, drilled women’s self-defense into me as a child knowing the world we live in is not safe and that he wouldn’t always be there to protect me. We absolutely can have strong, female superheroes in our stories who embody real femininity and complement their male counterparts.
But should those heroes be on the front lines of war? Believe it not, that is an entirely different question and one of the biggest reasons we need more nuance in order to have this conversation. From what I’m seeing in scripture, not in most cases. (Although there may be extenuating circumstances in which this may not be avoidable depending on the demands of the story.)
Since women fighting in war, and possibly even being drafted into combat units, is a reality of our often extreme feminist society, I would have to agree with Morse that this is not something to be encouraged. His concern that this could lead to weaker and more passive men is not unfounded. Barak’s cowardice is as old as Adam’s sin in the garden, and we still see it today.
Last but not least, Hoyle brings up another crucial aspect of this discussion at the very end of her article: that this is fantasy. Superpowers are a type of magic system, and therefore, throw a bit of a wrench into our applying these things to ourselves. Because Captain Marvel is actually stronger and not weaker than her male counterparts, doesn’t it follow that she should be fighting on the front lines?
This is a big question that creates many more. Just remember that most of the time when reading or writing about fictional magic, we’re using unreality to shed light on reality (whether we know it or not). Is Captain Marvel’s extreme physical strength a mere metaphor for her intelligence? Some viewers may have seen it that way. But to the woman who, like Eve before her, is looking to usurp the role given to the passive man standing next to her, that is not what Captain Marvel meant.
Let us not make blanket statements for one another, but see a thing for what it is, both the good mixed with the bad. We all have different origin stories that color our view of films and books. Although we shouldn’t espouse moral relativism, we need enough intellectual humility to listen to the perspectives of others and understand how things might not be as they first appear.