As a Christian, I am used to being mocked by fellow Christians for finding eternal themes and redeeming values in genre books and graphic novels and films. As a geek, I’m used to being mocked for enjoying comic book characters. As a fan of reading books, I’m used to being mocked for liking fantasy and science fiction.
In short, as a Christian geek who reads, I’m used to being mocked for just about everything.
To be fair, I freely admit there are opportunities for questions. But if you look around, you may notice a healthy contingent of smart, devoted, effective Christians who are wild about genre works. What do we know that others don’t? I contend there’s something stirring at the heart of imaginative genre works which is not only worth a second look, but can be an effective tool in winning the souls of a jaded but thirsty generation.
By the time I was going to see movies on the big screen with my dad in the mid-1970s, the only superhero characters I’d seen in the cinema were in Batman: The Movie, a 72-minute version of the two-part episodes I’d already seen on TV. The main difference between the TV and cinema version that I could see was instead of dealing with one or two villains, Batman gave us the United Underworld, uniting four of the most iconic villains in Gotham City (The Joker, Penguin, The Riddler, and Catwoman). Seeing a comic book do-gooder on the big screen was a novel concept for me and it stirred my imagination. But that Batman was campy and mainstream and utterly safe.
But then, in 1978, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie changed everything. For the first time, I felt like my fascination and love for larger-than-life comic book protagonists was vindicated and celebrated. Christopher Reeve was personal hero, not just as a comic book champion, but as a representative for someone who bought into the values of Truth, Justice, and the American Way (which looked very much like the Judeo-Christian ethic to me). Superman is frequently described as “the big, blue Boy Scout,” a flying Jesus-figure. I thought we’d see more such films but the next big hits might be Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, followed by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002.
Fast-forward to today. By this time, we’ve had superhero films in one form or another for decades. What is it about the latest batch of superhero movies that’s so exciting? It is nothing less than the reach for ultimate meaning, trying to exceed mere escapist adventure and grasping for more transcendent truth.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is rife with examples of self-sacrifice on behalf of Mankind. The Marvel films featured a very reckless and self-absorbed Thor sacrificing the thing he loved most, himself, for Asgardian friends and lesser mortals. In the 1940s, Captain America literally gave up his life for his friends, and then he was treated to a stellar update in the modern era with the Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For my money, this was an example of masterful writing coupled with an idealistic soldier grappling as much with modern mores as sophisticated villains.
Marvel’s historic rival DC has been a little late to the game but for some of us, the superhero films in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have had a lofty beginning. E. Stephen Burnett summed it up best when he wrote:
The “battle for the soul” of true heroism is what the DCEU films always meant to explore. Who are good heroes, and why should they fight for a sinful world that does not deserve them.
This is heady stuff for superhero movies, but it doesn’t end there.
Mike Duran recently tackled the topic The Importance of Implicit (v. Explicit) Christian Content in Fiction where he described the two-step conversion C.S. Lewis took to faith, which included a strong assist from the Arts, specifically, reading fiction.
The first step in Lewis’ conversion was “a conversion to Theism, not to Christianity.” He moved from strict atheism to a belief in God. It was an inability to grasp certain doctrinal issues, namely the Atonement, that prevented Lewis from taking the next step and embracing Christianity. This changed when Lewis’ Imagination was engaged. Specifically his love for myth and how Christ was “the true Myth” or “Myth become flesh.”
Duran quoted Holly Ordway’s book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination:
Ordway summarizes, “When Lewis realized that he could connect his imaginative response to the story, to the factual reality of the Christian claim about the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the final barrier to belief fell. He could become a Christian as a whole person, with both his imagination and his reason fully engaged.”
For modern non-believers, this assist from the Arts can occur through graphic novels, video games, music, movies. These modern superhero movies in particular have been rife with discussions of selflessness vs. selfishness, sacrificing one’s self for Mankind, “with great power comes great responsibility,” all that stuff. And this is why so many of us find fertile ground here to engage both our love of God and our love for geek culture. This is the power of redemptive storytelling which helps some take the first step toward ultimately embracing Jesus Christ. Superhero stories are one more tool in the Holy Spirit’s toolbox and it’s one we shouldn’t overlook, whether we are Christians, geeks, or readers.