Theology at the Movies
Summer is the time for big blockbusters at the theater. Movies are fun, at least partially because they allow us to escape for a short while from our less-than-satisfying reality. However, movies also speak volumes about the state of the culture. Many conservative Christians sharply criticize movies with morally objectionable content because they think that such films will lead to the practicing of the type of sin displayed on the screen. Undoubtedly there is truth to this claim. Nevertheless, it is also the case that movies serve as a mirror of where the culture already is, not simply where it is going. It therefore follows that Christians can learn much about the broader culture from movies, especially very popular movies. Let me illustrate this point with two examples. Two of the biggest films of Summer 2007 were Spiderman 3 and Transformers. In what follows I am not necessarily encouraging you to watch these movies. Rather, my hope is that we learn to see such cultural products as a window into the collective mind of our society. I’ll try to analyze the movies without spoiling them for those who haven’t yet seen them and have a desire to do so.
Some critics faulted Spiderman 3 for its many overlapping plots. It appears that the main plot is the internal struggle within Peter Parker, symbolized by the battle between Spiderman and Venom. Will Parker continue to act selflessly and use his great powers responsibly? Or will he use his powers to attain that which he desires with no regard for the concerns of others? In the end, as you could guess, he does what is right and saves the day. Reflecting upon his experiences, Peter Parker, in the last line of the film, states, “Our choices make us who we are and we can always choose to do what’s right.” Both parts of this statement are problematic. The first proposition – “Our choices make us who we are” – seems self-evident enough, but if taken as a summary of human existence it is terribly lacking. One of the great modern lies (stemming from scientific naturalism, I believe) is that humans have no nature, no essence. We are thus free to do as we wish, to remake ourselves, indeed to pursue our own self-actualization to infinity, so long as we do not infringe upon the pursuit of someone else. In contrast, the Christian worldview asserts that humans have a nature, and that our choices are the result of our nature. As our Lord said, “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35). Parker is right that our choices make us who we are, but it is also the case that who we are determines our choices. This leads into the second half of Peter Parker’s statement – “we can always choose to do what’s right.” The problem with this assertion is easier to see and follows from the above discussion. The Bible unequivocally declares that, as a result of the Fall, we have corrupted natures and therefore are prone to sin. Augustine stated it even stronger: natural man is non posse non peccare (“unable not to sin”). Peter Parker was wrong. We cannot always choose to do what is right.
In my estimation, Transformers was an even less satisfying movie than Spiderman. Lingering at the center of the movie is a tacit contradiction, a contradiction that well represents one of the great cultural fissures of our day. The background to the movie is that a very advanced species of aliens evolved into shape-changing robots. Eventually there arose a civil war between two groups of these so-called autobots. The military leader for the ‘good’ side is Optimus Prime. He is thoughtful and virtuous. Optimus Prime’s fundamental belief is that freedom is the right of all sentient beings. However, given the assumptions of the narrative, there is no metaphysical grounding for this assertion. If one assumes a narrative of atheistic evolution, and a corresponding worldview of scientific naturalism, there is no ultimate moral justification for valuing life. Indeed, intrinsic value of any sort is impossible. In fact, the evolutionary process favors the weeding out of the weakest organisms. If evolutionary theory is true, the weak should die so that the strong can live and further the species. Optimus Prime should stop trying to save the humans and join forces with the 'evil' Decepticons.
So there you have it – superheroes, robots, and in the midst of it all a little bit of theology. So the next time you’re watching that movie, listen closely because you might just gain a glimpse into the false assumptions of our age. May we have ears to hear well what the culture says so that we can speak faithfully the truth to the world.