Theology Postgraduate student and Star Wars fan Matthew Fell reviews the debate between Frank Turek and Paulogia, about whether or not our favourite movie heroes point to Christ.

Darth Vader

Source: Alamy

God doesn’t dress like that!

I can’t help but start this thing off with one of my favourite moments from the first Avengers movie. During the film, there’s a moment when heroes Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye have captured trickster villain Loki and are bringing him in for questioning. As their jet cuts through the clouds, things begin to get stormy. Suddenly, the hero of Asgard, Thor, bursts in for a confrontation with Loki. The two depart the jet with Iron Man in pursuit. Captain America decides he should get involved too, but Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanova tries to dissuade him: “I’d sit this one out Cap” she says, “These guys come from legend; they’re basically gods…” Cap replies, “There’s only one God mam, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that…”

 Cap’s statement kept playing on my mind as I listened to the discussion between Frank Turek and Paul Ens on Unbelievable. As they discussed whether the heroes of Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and other movie franchises, reflect the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ, I wondered two things. First, how might we know the ultimate and true hero from imaginary human-made stories? And secondly – more bizarrely, but hear me out – what would it look like for God to ‘suit up’, that is, appear among us kitted out as our hero. I want to explore both of those questions.

The Argument from Myth

Frank Turek offers us a contemporary version of the apologetic argument from mythology.[1] This argument proposes that the great mythological stories of human history are beloved because, ultimately, they point to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Stories describing magical lands and powers speak to our longing for transcendence and meaning. Acts of heroism reflect our often-unacknowledged need for a saviour and the hope that we too might be made hero-like. Redemptive narratives whisper to the hope held up in every heart that the broken world might be one-day set right and even our past mistakes somehow righted. As C.S. Lewis – the author of the Chronicles of Narnia – commented, “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.”[2]

Lewis himself became a Christian by recognising that Jesus of Nazareth was myth-incarnate; the true referent of all those stories come to join us in the flesh as our great hero and saviour. Whereas the ancient myths that Lewis had studied and loved were “God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there” he came to believe that “Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.”[3] This idea has resonated with a lot of people, including me.

A disproportionate amount of my childhood (and I must confess, teenage years too) was spent out in the garden playing Spiderman or Star Wars. I loved those stories and found so much joy and meaning in them. Looking back, I think I found shelter in those worlds, and perhaps spent too much time lost within them, preferring them to real life. And I don’t think I’m alone in that regard! Since the 1940s, Western (and global) culture has become saturated with fantasy and sci-fi stories. “Geek-culture” has become increasingly mainstream during my thirty-five years of life.

When I became a Christian at university, there was an unspoken fear in me that I must now view those modern myths as a waste of time or even something worse. Reading Lewis on Jesus the Myth-incarnate helped me appreciate anew what I and others love about those stories. At the same time, I began to see how I could still revel in those stories but also be present in the real world, coming out of the safe place of fantasy to follow Jesus and love His world with all its dangers and difficulties.

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Impasse

Listening to the debate between Frank and Paul, it occurred to me that we’re at an interesting stage in the development and reception of the argument from myth. Those who have listened to or watched the episode will note how the conversation seems to repeatedly get stuck in the cul-de-sac of ‘can evolution satisfactorily account for X’. First, it’s morality. Frank suggests that we love these stories because they resonate with our innate sense of right and wrong, as impressed upon our souls by God the creator. Paul disagrees and offers sophisticated accounts of how the evolution of hominids into the advanced social animals we humans are accounts for why we favour altruistic acts committed by the strong. Then the pair move on to debate if stories -including the story of Jesus - become influential because they reflect spiritual realities or rather the contours of our evolved nature. The conservation becomes stuck at this point. It seems that one either sees myth as pointing toward Christianity or not, depending on one’s presuppositions about other issues, namely whether material explanations are sufficient to account for human life in its totality. I came away from the discussion thinking that if Christians are to go on using the argument from myth, this impasse is something we need to attend to.

I found these discussions both fascinating and frustrating. My PhD research is on the question of whether God fashions the human soul via the processes of evolution or via a direct act of creation. During my research, I have learned that when it comes to providing a naturalist or theological account of things, it’s not as simple as an either/or binary. If we isolate and favour just one approach to understanding human nature – or anything else– we do violence to it. God has made this a material cosmos. In the book of Genesis, God pronounces that this materiality is a good thing and even enlists the agency of material things in shaping the development of creation. In Genesis 1:24 God creates animals through the agency of the earth. This isn’t the place to get into all the questions about evolution and Christianity. All I want to say here is that the Biblical and traditional picture of creation is one of God creating things and working through them for his purposes. This means that material accounts of how certain phenomena come about - say human morality – don’t need to be viewed as competing against God’s agency. God isn’t somehow squeezed out of the picture by such a view. In fact, God can’t be squeezed out of creation because he upholds and sustains it. As the Apostle Paul says, all things live and move and have their being in Him (Acts 17:28). To put it another way, to say that Vader cuts off Luke’s hand with a lightsaber doesn’t threaten the creative work of George Lucas.

C.S. Lewis appreciated this non-competitive relation between God and creatures. When discussing the question of human morality in The Problem of Pain, he states that “This signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul.”[4] While listening to the podcast, I wished that Frank would have taken a similar line to Lewis’ argument on this front. Frank sought to demonstrate the insufficiency of the naturalist account by demanding that Paul provide a satisfactory evolutionary account of why the Nazis were wrong. I think this argument is a bit of a blunt tool. What’s more, Frank missed an opportunity to turn Paul’s naturalist account on its head because saying that evolution provides an adequate rationale for how human morality developed doesn’t explain morality away; it only reframes the question.

The Argument from Altruism?

A materialistic understanding of morality begs the question of why is it that the evolution of a rational creature requires altruism? Evolved traits tell us something about the environment they develop in. Over millions of years, marine life has evolved gills and fins because those things allow fish and other sea creatures to thrive in the aquatic environment. Orangutans have evolved long arms because their habitat is forest and such a trait gains them access to the treetops. Particular environments afford possibilities, and creatures evolve traits that allow them to flourish in them. So, what does it tell us about the world that humans have evolved to be moral creatures who tell stories?

Obviously, we’re not consistently moral. Only the most unreflective among us are unable to see the shadows within our own soul. But nevertheless, we each have a strong sense of right and wrong. This is reflected in how human societies often have more in common than not on what they consider right and wrong to be. What does this tell us about ourselves and our cosmic environment?

We know that evolution occasionally produces the same solution in very different contents. One example of this is the camera eye, which has evolved in both human beings and octopuses – quite different species living in very different habitats. We call this evolutionary convergence.[5] It raises profound questions as to whether evolution is as random as some declare. Perhaps the processes of evolution somehow dimly reflect something of transcendent and underlying wisdom. This isn’t saying that we see undeniable and abounding evidence of design in nature – I don’t think we do. But we do see intelligible order (otherwise, we couldn’t study it) and beauty (without which we wouldn’t want to study). Might the moving processes of evolution reflect something of eternity? If so, might the evolution of human culture and morality reflect something of this?

I want to suggest that the convergence in human cultures around moral mythological themes indicates that these stories reflect deep truths. Truths about ourselves and truths about the universe our species has appeared in. To dismiss morality and mythology simply as a byproduct of human survival and society is bad science. We know that fish fins and long arms on orangutans tell us something about the worlds those creatures inhabit. Why should we then dismiss human morality and storytelling as simply social coping mechanisms with nothing to tell us about the wider world? I don’t think this is a knockdown argument for Christianity. But, to my mind, it certainly loosens the assumption that accepting evolution necessitates atheism.

Deconstructing Heroes

Another aspect of the discussion that intrigued me was the acknowledgement that franchises such as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have increasingly moved to deconstruct their heroes. By deconstruction, we mean the process of taking apart the assumptions and habits of something. So, for example, since the prequel trilogy, Star Wars has increasingly questioned the mystique of the Jedi order, revealing them to not be so righteous as we once all thought.

What’s going on with this phenomenon of deconstruction? I think there are probably two things at play. The first is that in a world where people (parents, institutions, governments) let us down, we need to find a way to explore our disappointment and express our growing cynicism. So, we deconstruct our heroes to explore these painful experiences. The second reason for this is that these characters and stories can’t always handle the pressure we put on them. We look to them, hoping that they will provide meaning and guidance for us but know deep down that they can’t fulfil the needs we bring to them. They are just stories on a screen at the end of the day. They can’t satisfy our deepest needs for meaning and redemption. So, who can?

Obviously, I’m going to say Jesus can. I do think he’s the great real myth and the one whose story makes sense of our own and gives hope and meaning. He’s the perfect hero. But what does that actually mean?

In the debate, Paul suggested that Jesus is too perfect. He’s a “Mary Sue” figure, someone too flawless to be authentic. I found this a fascinating question because it gets to the heart of who Jesus is and what kind of hero he comes to be.

While it’s true that the Gospels present Jesus as without sin, spotless and without blemish, walking on water, healing the sick and loving everyone he encounters, that’s not the whole picture. Jesus’ life is not one of success. As an infant, he has to go on the run from a despotic king. It’s likely that he lost his adopted father Joseph as a young man and could do nothing about it. He begins his public ministry and spends three years without a home, regularly ostracised and hated. He goes around ancient Israel touching the unclean, teaching the proud, entering into the whole sordid scope of human suffering and sadness. Eventually, that suffering engulfs him. His friends betray him. He becomes a political prisoner. Tortured, condemned, numbered with the scum of society, and executed in a manner designed for maximum pain and humiliation. This isn’t perfection; this is failure and tragedy. And Jesus feels it. He weeps, he wants a way out, he turns tables. And yet, in all of this, God’s unswerving love works its purpose. The light enters the deepest darkness.

The Ultimate Hero

I trust the Christian story because it reaches the darkest, most hopeless point that any story can go to. Jesus dies on the cross and enters the grave – the destination that awaits all of us at the end of our story. Along the way, Jesus experiences all the evils that human society has to throw at a person. In his suffering he associates with all of us and our worst-case scenarios. He undergoes physical pain and public humiliation, his body becoming the object of abuse by cruel men. Despair and abandonment sets in. He’s lonely and afraid and helpless. His story goes there. There’s no clever move this hero can take to get out of the mess. No last-minute reinforcements to get him back on his feet. Like a hopeless lamb to the slaughter, Jesus goes to the worst of all imaginable fates. And yet, that’s not the end of the story. He goes into the valley of the shadow of death, not bypassing it last minute. He goes down to its darkest, coldest depth. And he comes out the other side. No other story goes to this level of hopelessness and turns it into hope. The cross is a victory like no other.

So, if Jesus is the ultimate hero, what does it look like for him to suit up? To answer this question, I can’t think of a better passage of scripture than John 13. In this passage, we see Jesus on the night he would be arrested wash his disciples’ feet. In an act that reflects the whole story of the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus takes off his outer garments and gets down to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. This is the act of a lowly servant. He touches all the grime and muck they’ve accrued during their journey. He does this for each of his disciples, including the one about to betray him for thirty pieces of silver and the other who’ll deny he knows him in just a few hours. Jesus knows what he’s doing. This is what he’s about. This is him in his heroic guise. This is what it looks like for God to suit up and save the day.

Cap was right. There’s only one God. And he doesn’t dress like Thor or another other of our modern superheroes. In fact, while he meets our deepest longings and fulfils all our hopes for a great hero, he doesn’t look anything like we expect him to. He’s even better.

 

Matthew Fell lives in Cambridge with his wife and their three young children. He’s studying for a PhD in theology at Cambridge University and alongside that runs the Intentional Discipleship programme for the Newfrontiers family of churches. When he has a free moment, he enjoys running on the fens, climbing trees, and telling his kids stories about Star Wars (they’re still too young for the films).

 

[1] Frank’s new book (co-authored with his son)  Holywood Heroes

[2] C. S. Lewis “Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, (London: Collins, 2017) p. 127.

[3] C. S. Lewis (2009). “Yours, Jack: The Inspirational Letters of C. S. Lewis”, p.28, HarperCollins UK

[4] C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain (London: Collins, 2012), 151

[5] To learn more about evolutionary convergence, check out the work of the Cambridge biologist Simon Conway Morris. Conway Morris is a Christian and has spoken on how he believes the study of evolution raises questions that Christianity can make sense of. See https://www.faraday.cam.ac.uk/resources/multimedia/does-the-evolutionary-narrative-tend-to-support-theism/.