A few weeks ago, I had a revelation. Age of Ultron just hit theaters as I hit the road for a friend’s wedding, and I found myself discussing the film with some Christians outside my normal circle. Excitedly, I shared my take on the similarities between superhero movies and the Gospel, and why I thought superheroes embodied the Biblical theme of a God who fights our battles.
The feedback was less than enthusiastic. Most people looked puzzled. Others looked annoyed. And then someone put into words what the rest were probably thinking: “Hmm. That’s a stretch.” That’s when I had my revelation. I realized most Christians don’t view movies the same way I do. I realized I might be in the middle of a postmodern crisis.
Defining the Terms
Modernism was a movement grounded in science. Using research and reason, members of the modern era sought to discover universal truths about anything worthy of study. For modernists, art is a one-way communication between a creator and an audience. The modern mind places heavy weight on the creator’s intent to better understand the “right” meaning of the piece.
Postmodernism arrived as a reaction to this. Postmodernists reject universal truths in favor of subjective reality. What’s true for you may not be true for me. For them, all truth is relative.
Joss Whedon, the writer/director of Age of Ultron is an atheist. The modernist would argue that any interpretation of the film that’s explicitly Christian should be rejected since the creator doesn’t hold those views. Postmodernists, on the other hand, would argue that there’s no such thing as a correct interpretation. For them, there are as many interpretations of a film as there are viewers.
What if there was a middle ground?
A Postmodern Approach
My approach to film is unabashedly postmodern. One of the glorious things about art is its ability to speak to many different people in many different ways. Film discussion is exciting because of the different interpretations everyone brings to the table. I remember talking with a friend last year about Birdman. For me, the film was about the highs and lows of being an artist. For him, the film was about the meaningless of life without God. In sharing our views, each of us saw the movie with fresh eyes and learned even more about each other.
Great artists understand this, which is why they’re often hesitant to share their take on the material. They know if they’ve done their job right, the film will contain meaning far beyond the original intent. That’s the mystery of the creation process. Art taps into something bigger than ourselves.
Christopher Nolan is the master of mysterious endings. When Inception arrived, movie forums were buzzing about what the spinning top symbolized at the end. Was the ending real? Were the characters still dreaming? Nolan refused to comment. He knew the minute he stepped in to give the “correct” interpretation, all the magic would be stifled.
As Christians, we shouldn’t be afraid of interpreting art in a way that differs from the original intent. We’re not compromising anything. In fact, the approach can be valuable.
Acts 17 tells the story of Paul in Athens. The culture was steeped in idolatry. Paul started his speech to the crowd by stating, “People of Athens! I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed your objects of worship, I found an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown , this I proclaim to you.” Paul studied the culture around him, and used something they were familiar with as an entry point for the Gospel.
Jesus used the symbols of his day too. He filled his parables with agricultural references because he lived in an agrarian society. When Jesus told the “Parable of the Sower” or the “Parable of the Mustard Seed” everyone knew what he was talking about. The symbols made the stories come alive for his listeners.
Why can’t we use a superhero movie to point people to God’s truth?
While I believe all interpretations of a film are valid, not all interpretations are truthful. This is where I part ways with postmodernism. As Christians, we believe in a Bible that’s filled with absolute truth. To become a follower of Jesus, you have to believe he exists, know what he’s like, and understand what he requires. My faith forms a lens for how I see the world around me.
Despite what the postmodernist says, everyone views the world through a lens of absolute truth. The claim that there are no meta-narratives or overarching truths is in and of itself a universal truth statement. The question isn’t whether we believe things are true. The question is which of our beliefs are right? Films can go a long way in beginning that conversation.
Two people can watch a movie together and come to dramatically different conclusions. One may watch American Sniper and consider it a patriotic homage to the bravery of our troops. Another may watch it and consider it a devastating glimpse at the evils of war. The different interpretations should propel them into conversation. What made them feel that way? What life experiences are at play? What truth lenses are they viewing the world through?
Christians should be at the forefront of these conversations, not only to evangelize, but also to gain deeper insights into the hearts of their neighbor. Art can be a powerful tool to draw people together, level the playing field, and discuss what matters. But our approach will be the difference between opportunities gained or lost.
The Truth Business
Are my connections between superhero movies and the Bible a stretch? Only within the modernist framework where secular Hollywood can’t produce anything that resembles the Gospel. But make no mistake, Hollywood is in the truth business, whether they know it or not. Great art always produces great truth, and truth is truth wherever it’s found.
God still speaks through ordinary things. God speaks through art. But we’ll never hear his voice if we’re only focused on the voice of the artist. We should embrace the opportunities postmodernism offers without abandoning the foundation of our faith.
God’s truth is always on the move, no matter what movement we find ourselves in. He speaks to us even now from silver screens around the globe. Are we listening?