Sunday, March 1, 2015
Why Spiritual/Biblical themes are Repeated in Movies
In seminary my class was given the assignment to write a paper on our personal theology. In response to my paper the professor said that I had a ‘Star Wars’ theology. I suggested to him that “I think it is the other way around; Star Wars got its ideas from the Bible”. I believe Biblical themes have an intrinsic place in the human soul and psyche, and it is fascinating to observe how this comes out in stories and film. What follows below is not by any means a scientific survey of the subject, but simply the observations from an average man’s engagement in pop culture.
The most moving theme of the Bible, and also of life, is redemption; redemption is the central theme of the Christ story, and all the other themes circle around it. Whenever we hear a story of true sacrifice for love, honor, or the life of another we can not help but be moved deeply; it is a basic response of the goodness in the human soul to honor true sacrifice - and deep down I believe this universal response comes from the Lord within us. A good example of this is in superman: as the military captain flies the ‘package’ into the world engine (to destroy it) he says, “a good death is its own reward”. This affirms the spiritual value of honor, and giving one’s life for another. On this point Swedenborg writes:
Every citizen or subject is united to his king by obeying his commands and precepts; and more so if he endures hardships for him; and still more if he suffers death for him, as men do in war. In the same way friend is united to friend, son to father, and servant to master, by acting according to their wishes; still more by defending them against enemies; and more yet by fighting for their honor. Is not one united to the maiden whom he is wooing when he fights with those who defame her, and contends even to wounds with his rival? It is according to an inherent law of nature that they are united by such means.
(The word King, which was appropriate for Sweden in the time of Swedenborg, could be replaced with ‘nation’ or ‘community’). The principle Swedenborg expresses above relates to the Lord saying in the Bible: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep. Therefore doth My Father love Me” (John 10:11- 17). The depiction in stories and movies of heroes that are willing to sacrifice themselves and save the world evoke the intense love and bond that comes with the acknowledgement of the heroes deeds, know-how, and skill. We are moved to tears by their skill and deeds even if we have seen the same story a hundred times, and even if it is not great art. There is perhaps nothing more internally compelling to a child then a father or mother who cares for them so much that they will die for them. And everyone of us still has this child inside that yearns for this care, and hopefully is willing to do it for another. Here are some examples in movies: In the movie ‘Armagedon’ there is the self sacrifice of the Father Figure (Bruce Willis) who forcible takes the place of his future son in law so his son in law can live and marry his daughter; he is left behind on a meteor by himself to ignite the bomb that will save the world; in the Matrix there is the wondrous skill and spiritual mastery of ‘The One’ (Keanu Reeves) that saves the world. In ‘Signs’ the young girl helps save the world because she has been intuitively led to leave water cups around the house (and it turns out that water destroys the aliens); also the young man in ‘Signs’ saves his family with his prodigal skill for swinging the bat; in ‘Independence Day’ the drunk, worthless father sacrifices himself by flying into the power source of the alien ship; There are similar themes in the Terminator, The Fifth Element, Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America, Men In Black, and many others. There are also great stories of personal sacrifice in more life-like stories. In these stories we are deeply moved because of the battle we all go through to find ourselves, overcome hardships, and see meaning in our lives. We see this in movies like ‘Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Lone Survivor’, ‘The green Mile’, and thousands of others. These stories so often center around Military and police men and woman, because they are the ones most often in harms way, and most of them have dedicated themselves to the honor and safety of their country or community, and are willing to sacrifice their lives for others. When we hear the story of the soldier that jumped on a grenade to save his companions we cannot help but feel love and honor for the man and his deed. How much more are we moved to honor Jesus Christ - for He from his own might saved all humanity from eternal darkness.
It may seem odd that I am bringing comic book stories, fantasy, and pop movies into a study of the Bible. But it is really not so odd. G.K. Chesterson wrote a long time ago an essay called, “In defense of Penny dredfuls”. (Penny dreadfuls are stories for adolescents that can be compared to pulp fiction in America.) In it he writes: “The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more inportant. Every one of us has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae. Literature is a luxery; fiction is a necessity”. He argues that common novels that engage these themes are invaluable to the imagination and inner development of youth and adults wether they are well written or not: “That is to say, they do precisely the same thing as Scott’s Ivanhoe and Lady of the Lake, Byron’s Corsair, Wordworth’s, Rob Roy’s Grave, Stevenson’s Macaire, Mr. Max Pemberton’s Iron Pirate, and thousands of more books…It is the modern literature of the educated, not of the uneducated, which is avowedly and aggressively criminal…The vast mass of humanity have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fedelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life.”
Although circumstances have changed when Chesterson wrote this, the spirit of what he is saying very much applies today. In a later essay called Orthodoxy he extends his argument to Christianity and attempts to explain the immediacy that continually fuels the inner need to engage Biblical themes:
All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads. The vast and shallow philosophies talk about ages and evolutions and ultimate developments. The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that?...The instant is really aweful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology dealt much with hell. It is full of danger, like a boy’s book: it is at an immortal crises. There is a great deal of similarity between popular fiction and the religion of the western people (Jacobs, 124).
It is inevitable that Biblical themes are told by our most creative people. Pop culture is market driven. Whether the writers and producers of these movies are Christian or not, or whether they are conscience of the source of these themes, they know what moves people inside – they know what sells to the masses. Sex sells, but so does the deep inner desire for redemption by superheroes. Carl Jung made a big point of revealing story tellers that wrote genuinely from the creative imagination; he made the distinction of stories that were archetypal from the collective unconscious, and thereby had universal appeal to people, and those that were conscious creations (more manipulative). This is certainly an important point, but I don’t think we have to concern our self laboring to identify this quality with each book or movie. Rather, for our purposes we can go by the receiving end, that is, what is continually compelling to people in the market place.
In regard to the subject of the Bible and myth I think Carl Jung missed something essential; he seemed to believe in Christ as a real man, but not as divine. To my knowledge he treated the Bible as Myth, and psychologized it. He believed in God within the individual but not in God as both within and without, and that He is the creator of all things. C. S. Lewis was also a master of myth, Medeival literature, fantasy and loved these kinds of books. In the early part of his life he considered himself an atheist. But unlike Jung, he gradually come to the conclusion that the Bible was true history, not myth, he had to come to intellectual terms with the Bible as history. This made all the difference for him. C.S. Lewis became a passionate Christian while retaining his love of myth and fantasy. He strove to live the Christian values.
Most people assume that C. S. Lewis wrote his stories, especially the Narnia Chronicles, with a conscious intention to create Christian allegories (as I did). But he writes over and over again that it was not this way; in regard to the Narnia stories he writes:
Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I would write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out “allegories” to embody them. This is pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all (The Narnian, Jacobs, 244).
Lewis strove to do something far more risky, courageous, and self revealing in these stories. He wrote: “It is better not to ask the questions (what allegories are god for children) at all. Let the pictures show you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life”. This is very profound to contemplate. Lewis biographer, Alan Jacobs, writes about this:
“The moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life”. This is terrifying, or liberating: liberating in that one need not expose oneself to the sanctimonious drudgery of drawing up lists of Christian truths…But terrifying because as those images rise from your mind you discover what you are really made of…Trusting the images, you find out who you are” (Jacobs, 244).