5 Most Unexpectedly Theological Films of 2016
For this list I singled out a specific scene from each film which captures its greater theological insight. Given this approach, a major SPOILER WARNING is in effect. I will address specific plot details for each of these movies, so if you have not seen one of them, but want to at some later date, please skip it!
Last thing: major trigger warning for details of sexual assault in #2.
5. The “Magic” - Pete’s Dragon
Mid-century American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr referred to the revelation of God in Christ as the “intelligible event which makes all other events intelligible”, meaning that once Jesus came to reveal the fullness of God, and the image of true humanity, we as followers of Christ are forevermore called to see the rest of life through the lens of that revelation. Everything else in the world, and in human history, must be understood in light of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Go figure a similar sentiment would show up in a Disney movie about a CGI dragon.
In Pete’s Dragon, Robert Redford plays an old man who saw the dragon once, years prior to the events of the film. His whole community believes him to be crazy, but he clings to his memories and beliefs and tells anyone who will listen about the magic he experienced upon seeing the beast, which has stayed with him ever since.
It was an event which changed the way he interprets every other event in his life. It was revelation. A sincere experience with God ought to be similarly cataclysmic. The “magic” of an encounter with the living God should change the way we see the world, and more importantly, the way we see other people.
"Of course nobody believed me. I knew what people were saying about me, and I must admit there were times when I thought, 'Maybe they're right.' But then, then I thought about the magic. It changed the way I see the world, the way I see trees, the way I see sunshine... I wouldn't trade that for anything."
Dr. Strange boasts the most unexpectedly theological scene of the year. And it’s not the kaleidoscopic, minutes-long dimension-hopping acid trip, nor the tender goodbye of Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One as she imparts one final bit of wisdom upon the protagonist (“It’s not about you”). It’s actually the film’s climax, in which Stephen Strange confronts the cosmic being Dormammu in his dark dimension. I can’t be certain whether it’s intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but the scene plays very much like an homage to the mythic period between Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection, what certain church traditions call the “Harrowing of Hell”. According to this quasi-canonical doctrine, Jesus Christ, following his crucifixion at the hands of Roman authorities and Jewish leaders, descended into hell itself to win deliverance for captive humanity. New Testament Scriptures do make passing reference to this descent (1 Peter 3:19-20, 1 Peter 4:6), but the specific narrative in which Christ meets the devil in hades and tricks him into freeing captive human souls owes more to tradition than to Scripture. Still, given how the doctrine appears in some form within the text of the Apostle’s Creed (“He descended into hell”), it's alarming how seldom contemporary Protestant Christians talk about it.
Many of our fictional heroes function as Messianic figures, sacrificing their own lives for the sake of their people. Sometimes this Christ imagery is more effective than others, and personal mileage may vary, but I find the Harrowing of Dormammu’s Dark Dimension by Dr. Strange to be a moving reminder of how Christ confronts the powers of darkness not with a drawn sword, but with a vulnerable body and the creativity of peace, and how the love behind the gesture, behind the sacrifice, will prove stronger even than death.
3. Signing His Book - The VVitch
The horror genre is often fertile ground for conversations around spirituality and faith, and this year’s bleak masterpiece The VVitch offers as poignant a spiritual message as I’ve seen in some time. The whole film, both a Puritan period piece and a paranoid supernatural thriller, functions as a parable about humankind’s relationship to God, as well as to darker spiritual forces in the world. Indeed, The VVitch is one of those stories that confronts without flinching the notion that there is something like a “devil” in the world. As a Pentecostal, I happen to believe in antagonistic spiritual forces, so I was curious to see how an art-horror film might treat belief in the devil in Puritan theology and culture. Would it render the devil as a mimetic or metaphorical presence, merely the sum of all the paranoia and fear-mongering which force us to turn against each other? Or would it play the devil card straight, as do most blockbuster horror flicks?
What makes the VVitch particularly fascinating is how it splits the difference. There is a witch terrorizing the puritan family at the film’s center, and a demonic figure out for their souls. The family is only so vulnerable to attack, however, because they have also fallen victim to bad theology and false images of God. The son is terrorized by the idea that he might not be an “elect” child of God (an earmark of Calvinist, Puritan theology). The mother is inconsolable after the loss of her infant child because she fears it might have gone to hell. The eldest daughter only finally surrenders to the will of Satan, signs his book and hands over her soul because she believes herself to be utterly abandoned by God. Because when you think God hates you, that you are a wretched, worthless thing in His sight (another feature of old Calvinist theology [and some neo-Calvinist theology]), you might as well hand yourself over to the devil. Bad theology has consequences, and can in fact leave room for the Evil One to worm his way into our hearts and relationships. Dread terror of God may actually drive us further away from God. Only the love of God, which restores relationship and brings health and fullness of life, can deliver us from our hatred and suspicion of each other and draw us all closer to the heart of God. It is, after all, God's kindness which leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
2. “There is no God” - Don’t Breathe
The claustrophobic Don’t Breathe caught many audiences off guard. I, for one, went in expecting a standard home invasion thriller, not a meditation on morality in a godless world. The film centers on three youths, two of whom are more-or-less well meaning but caught up in some bad business, and the third is a career criminal. They decide to rob an old, blind man, only to discover mid-robbery that the man (Stephen Lang) is a horrifying force of nature with nefarious secrets hiding in the deep recesses of his home. The invasion goes as poorly as you can imagine, and the young woman of the three (Jane Levy) finds herself chained in the man’s basement, listening as he delivers a soliloquy about justice in a nihilistic, post-God world. He pontificates to her about how, since there is no God, the only justice he will find for the death of his pregnant daughter (killed by a drunk driver) is that which he can deliver himself. This, for him, entails kidnapping a young woman and forcibly inseminating her with his own seed. The only reason he can justify this horror is that there is no external, unbending moral authority in the universe; there is only his own vengeance (“There is nothing a man cannot do once he accepts the fact that there is no god”).
While the film does offer an incisive critique of godless vengeance (secular non-humanism?), what I find more interesting is how the old man’s justifications echo the way American church folks talk about defending their homes and families. The paramount ethical concern in American Christianity is security: protecting our families, our property, and our own lives. Forget what Jesus said about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek or resisting evil with good; what’s most important is “being a man” and “protecting what’s yours”. Our conception of justice is bloody and retributive in a way God’s justice is not. God’s justice restores and brings life. God’s justice is mouths fed, arms laid down. When the church’s vision of bravery and manhood looks more like a grizzled old man who tortures home invaders than the slain lamb who laid down his life even for his enemies, we have to wonder if we’re missing something fundamental. And the stakes are high, as these attitudes have real-world consequences. Consider how this warped security-and-muscle ethic can justify the refusal of refugees or the necessity of personal gun ownership, stances which are hardly in line with the example of Christ. We must "look upon the cross" for our example of God's character, and then follow in His steps.
1. “Know Who You Are” - Moana
For a half-hour-or-so stretch in the middle of Disney’s Moana, I wasn’t sure if the film was quite pulling off what it set out to do. Its earliest moments had been winsome enough, with Moana herself standing out for her tenacity and sense of duty. The film’s songs, too, are uniformly inspired (thanks to a writing team which includes Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda), but something about the second act, with demigod Maui’s incessant quipping and hapless chicken Heihei getting in the way at every turn, left me a bit cold. Everything snapped into sharp focus, however, when Moana’s grandmother returned from the grave to remind the young heroine of her identity and calling. The two musical numbers which follow are, for my money, among the most touching I've ever seen. In the first (a reprise of the film’s catchiest anthem “How Far I’ll Go”), Moana recalls her life’s meaning and vocation as her tribe’s Wayfinder, boldly proclaiming, “I know the way; I am Moana!” In the second, the princess confronts her enemy (lava demon Te Ka) in 2016’s most theological cinematic moment:
I have crossed the horizon to find you; I know your name
They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this does not define you
This is not who you are. You know who you are.
Moana is only able to confront the demon because she has faced down her own. Since she has remembered and reclaimed her own identity, she can now see her foe with clear eyes and tender heart, knowing even the demon is not beyond redemption. Rather than destroying her enemy, Moana identifies with it (“I know your name”). Instead of slaying the dragon, she calls it by name, offers it compassion (“this does not define you”) and emboldens Te Ka to remember herself (“You know who you are”). Having been known and loved, Te Ka becomes the earth goddess Te Fiti once again. Moana's love for her enemy doesn't just repair a single relationship; it repairs the world, as Te Fiti's return to grace begins to undo the decay wrought in her absence. And in the same way, our love of friend and enemy alike can, in some small way, repair the world (as the Mishnah says, tikkun olam). Enemy love, identity, naming, vocation. It's all there folks. What a movie.