I recently stopped subscribing to a Christian podcast on films when, during a two-part examination of John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing, an entire show was dedicated to examining racial themes in the movie. Huh? The Thing? The podcasters asked questions like,
- Was there subliminal racism in the casting of one black actor as the cook?
- How did the whites on the Arctic team wield their “privilege” to the non-whites?
- Was Carpenter ahead of his time by not killing off the other black actor?
Ugh. It was a tortuous example of overreach and progressive deconstruction, and heralded my abandonment of said podcast.
Such over-analyzation of social structures and pop cultural commodities is commonplace among progressives. Now our movies and books are sifted for any evidence of cultural appropriation, whitewashing, micro-aggressions, racism, sexism, and the slightest violation of liberal groupthink. Sadly, this kind of forced reading is not unique to Leftists. It’s found its way into the Church. Only, in this case, it’s not necessarily wielded by social progressives, but by pop culture watchers eagerly looking for any evidence of God and the Gospel in films and fiction. In both cases, it’s leading to often comical overreach.
The eager embrace of Wonder Woman is just the latest example of Christians forcing God and the Gospel into some pop cultural commodity.
For the record, I believe that:
- Evidences of God and the Gospel can be found throughout pop culture and
- Christians should be about discerning, engaging, and redeeming elements of culture.
God has created us in His image (Gen. 1:27) and set eternity in the heart of Man (Eccl. 3: 11). So it’s no wonder that we should see echoes of God and His truth all around us. It’s why the Apostle Paul quoted from pagan poets to reinforce biblical truth (Acts 17:28). Likewise, we should be able to find God and the Gospel everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. All that to say, I’m behind Christians exercising pop cultural discernment and critiquing art through a biblical lens.
I’m just wondering if we haven’t taken this thing too far.
Like the header in this post. It’s taken from a now defunct campaign aimed at pastors by Warner Bros. upon its release of Man of Steel. According to THIS ARTICLE in the Christian Post,
As the new Superman movie “Man of Steel” prepares for its second weekend at the theaters, following a very impressive first week showing, pastors are being urged to show trailers for the film to their congregation and preach about the noted similarities between Superman and Jesus Christ.
“How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?” read a sermon note that was sent to Christian pastors by Warner Bros. Studios, the film company behind “Man of Steel,” according to a CNN report.
Okay. Hollywood is beginning to realize that the Christian market is viable and attempting to take steps to engage us. Of course, the campaign was criticized but, more importantly, it was simply a reflection of a much larger move among Christians to cull spiritual messages from their pop cultural consumption.
As such, the list of the possible intersections of Christ and pop culture are now everywhere! Even if those intersections are somewhat contrived.
A few examples… and there are many.
Forbes suggests that Superheroes Helped Hollywood Rediscover the Bible and the spawning of Comic Book Heroes in a Christian Worldview sites are now fairly prolific. ThinkProgress sees a Rise of the Christian Superheroes while Faith and Fandom enlists us in Finding God in Sci-Fi, Superheroes, and Video Games. Crosswalk offers 5 Lessons Learned from Superhero Movies while Relevant Magazine extrapolates upon The Gospel According to Stranger Things, subtitling the article, The deep meaning behind Netflix’s hottest show. Star Wars, as you can probably guess, gets lots of love. There’s The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope and the Force, Star Wars Jesus,which promises to chronicle “Christian spirituality in the Star Wars movies, ” and there’s even a daily devotional for Christian Star Wars fans entitled The Real Force. Over at Beliefnet, the finale of the Wolverine series gets christened in Finding God, Redemption, and Purpose in Logan, wherein they gush, Hugh Jackman’s last stab at playing Wolverine is a masterpiece that Christian filmmakers should learn from. One blogger sees The Avenger’s Vision as A Vision of Jesus and this writer at CBN sees a parallel between Iron Man and the Christian: “Unlike Iron Man, you and I don’t battle terrorists or super-villains in a hi-tech suit of armor. But like Iron Man, we do have a battle to fight and, as Christians, we’ve been given a suit of armor that makes us invincible against our enemy.”
Our apparent preoccupation with baptizing superheroes into the Church and excavating Gospel messages whenever possible led to a bit of well-deserved lampooning from Metro in Man of Steel: The Top 25 Reasons Why Superman is Jesus. Some of those reasons are:
1. He has a beard
2. His dad has a beard
3. He has superpowers
4. His dad has superpowers
5. His dad sent him to Earth to save humanity
6. ‘He’ll be a god to them’
7. He was sort of born in a stable
8. His adoptive father is a humble tradesman
9. None of the neighbours seem to wonder why his ‘mom’ never got pregnant
10. Some humans were a bit of a dick to him
11. But he didn’t use his superpowers to kick their asses
12. Can walk on water
13. Betrayed by some guy for money
14. Willingly sacrifices himself for the good of mankind
You get the idea.
So is there a “deep meaning” behind Stranger Things? Are Christians like Iron Man and “given a suit of armor that makes us invincible against our enemy”? Are there really devotional lessons we can take from Star Wars?
Hm. Maybe. Then again, so much of this seems to be becoming a big reach.
Which brings me (finally) to Wonder Woman. In case you haven’t noticed, Christians are all over this movie. Besides the fact that unexpected, spontaneous weeping has been reported during the film, many Christian reviewers are hailing it as not just a notable installment among superhero flicks, but a profound spiritual event. In her fantastic article, Is Wonder Woman a Good Example of Biblical Womanhood?, Amy Mantravadi lists a few of the many gushy reviews of the the film:
- “The Gospel According to Wonder Woman?” by Tripp Hudgins for Religion News Service
- “‘Wonder Woman’: A Peculiar and Unexpected Heroine” by Gina Dalfonzo for The Gospel Coalition
- “‘They Do Not Deserve You’; Wonder Woman and Soteriology” by Derek Rishmawy
- “The New ‘Wonder Woman’ Is Really a Story About Jesus” by M. Hudson for The Federalist
- “Why We Need Wonder Woman” by Alicia Cohn for Christianity Today
- “‘Wonder Woman’ Might Be the Most Accurate On-Screen Depiction of Biblical Womanhood, And Here’s Why” by Marilette Sanchez
Mantravadi summarizes: “When I saw these glowing statements of adoration and then read the attached articles, I almost wondered if they had seen the same movie that I did.”
Indeed, the adulation for the film from those in my social media circles has left me mighty suspicious. Of course, such suspicion is usually branded as curmudgeonly or sexist, followed by the obligatory, “You can’t criticize the film until you’ve seen it!” Perhaps after I see the film I will have a different take. I don’t know. But the over-the-top attributions to Wonder Woman appear part of a larger trend and only reinforce my sense that Christians are a bit to eager to find Jesus in pop culture. I mean, Wonder Woman is “the Most Accurate On-Screen Depiction of Biblical Womanhood”? For reals? Or as Hudgins summarizes in The Gospel According to Wonder Woman at RNS:
When all our heroes are male, we need to stop and ask ourselves what we’re missing … what part of humanity is being silenced.
This is gospel that I see. On the screen we have a skillfully wrought story about a powerful woman, a divine force in the world, and all of the other women who helped fashion her. But off-screen we behold the gospel, the story of God-Made-Flesh in the talents, skills and passions of the women who made the film.
If there is a “Gospel According to Wonder Woman,” it is found in the lives of the creators, the moviemakers and the women in the audiences who are driving the financial success of the film. Their humanity as well as those they work with is on full, glorious, truthful display. This is what we should celebrate.
A “a divine force in the world”? The story of “God-Made-Flesh in the talents, skills and passions of the women who made the film”? Makes me wonder if tongues of fire appeared on the set while the Shekinah glory descended on the cast and crew. Alas, such is the over-wrought praise for the film.
Mantravadi does us a favor by carefully parsing some of the film’s elements to speak to the central theme that many Christian reviewers seem to be arriving at: Is this really biblical womanhood? Spoilers follow:
Princess Diana reveres multiple gods and goddesses, so right off the bat we should be suspicious. Raised in an entirely female enclave, Diana is certainly independent and strong, but as soon as a lone male lands on their shores, she forms an emotional connection with him. I’m not just talking about something platonic. She walks in on him naked and takes in more than a few eyefuls. In this scene, she makes a comment that the audience is certainly led to believe refers to Steve Trevor’s private parts. It is then humorously revealed to be about something else. If the roles were reversed and a male superhero had walked in on and continued to stare at a naked woman, I’m sure people would be upset.
Diana agrees to follow Steve into the wider world to help stop World War I. Her motivations for this seem to be fairly pure, though it is hard to imagine that some affection for Steve isn’t playing a role. As they travel together by boat, Diana invites Steve to sleep next to her. He objects, saying that in his world it is not appropriate for men and women who are unmarried to sleep together, though he clearly hints that he has done so. Diana reveals that she has no concept of marriage, but she certainly knows a lot about physical pleasure, she also says that if she ever gets marry a private investigator would have to be one of her first contacts. She once again tells Steve to lie next to her and then details how the Amazon women read all about the joys of the flesh and don’t need men to help them in this regard. This is a clear reference to either lesbianism or masturbation.
Steve is literally the first man that Diana has ever met. It takes her about two or three days to climb into bed with him. Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Gina Dalfonzo said, “There’s a suggestion of a bedroom scene, but nothing is shown except a kiss while both characters are fully dressed.” That’s technically true, but I don’t think the implication will be lost on anyone. Diana apparently has no concept of sexual fidelity. Her ideas about physical pleasure have no connection with marriage, as demonstrated by the fact that she had never even heard of it.
Mantravadi concludes: “I can’t help thinking that Wonder Woman would be a better model for girls if she did a little less fighting and had a few more principles.”
Of course, there may be many redeeming qualities to Wonder Woman, as well as the entire canon of superhero films and other pop cultural icons we are eager to embrace. My question here is whether or not this isn’t further evidence that Christians are far too eager to read God and the Gospel into their favorite fantastical stories. Why do we do this? Maybe it’s because God and the Gospel are actually there!
Then again, I’m beginning to suspect it’s more of a desire to co-opt pop culture as our own.
Which is likely evidence of our inability to create viable pop-cultural commodities.
Either way, before you start pitching The Gospel According to Wonder Woman to your publisher, I’d like to encourage you to make sure that the message of Wonder Woman is really that biblical. And whether the trend to spiritualize pop culture and co-opt its superheroes hasn’t run its course.