Christian Kryptonite

Kryptonite

Kryptonite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some reason, I can’t get away from Superman this week (is it the abs, do you think?). My last post puzzled over Man of Steel, I brought the movie up in my Introduction to Literature class, and here I am responding to more critics of the film.

This time, I want to address the phenomenon of Christians taking umbrage with the Christologizing of Kal-El.

Lately, I’ve been on the hunt for journals of cultural criticism that aren’t stupid and petty. The quest led me to an article calledMan of Steel and the tiredness of Christ Figures” at a website called think Christian. The author, Josh Larsen, has written a thoughtful and somewhat surprising diatribe against finding Jesus in secular movies, Man of Steel being the occasion for his argument.

I find the article intriguing, if only because it is so unexpected. The overwhelming trend in Christian cultural criticism (if such a thing exists) seems to be to (maybe a bit desperately) usurp popular cultural artifacts and re-purpose them as extended metaphors for the Cross. I think there must be some money to be made here in packaging youth group bible study curricula or something. “Finding Jesus in True Blood.” Coming to a Christian bookstore near you.

But I digress.

At any rate, Larsen argues that this is a wasteful endeavor and he makes a sound case for his position. In addition, I find it admirable that someone writing for what seems to be a mainstream Christian publication has the courage to stand against that very current. His willingness to challenge cultural orthodoxy is a welcome sign. Somehow though, his claim doesn’t sit entirely well with me.

The following statement is where I get stuck:

It seems to me that the practice of identifying Christ figures almost always brings more to the movies at hand than it does to our understanding of Christ. It adds religiosity and resonance (even if neither are intended), yet rarely informs our faith. As a theological exercise, Christ-figuring is a one-way street.

Larsen is a good writer, and the claim he makes here offers an insightful dissection of a shallowness in much Christian thinking about culture. He is right; often, Christians who try and apply the Jesus-stamp to movies like Man of Steel approach it in an intellectually lazy way that serves neither the faith nor the film very well.

Yet while Larsen correctly identifies a flaw in contemporary attempts at what he calls “Christ-figuring,” I think he unnecessarily pushes the practice as a whole into the mud as well.

If anything, a film like Man of Steel should be a very productive theological exercise if the viewer is willing to challenge his or her own imagination. The film presents what is clearly meant to be a vision of Jesus, yet this is not the same thing as presenting Jesus himself. It is in that distinction, subtle though it may be, that the “one way street” Larsen identifies can open up a new lane.

If we are to accept the analogy of Zack Snyder’s Superman as Jesus, then it offers a challenge to the Jesus that Christians widely accept. This Sacrificial Lamb takes out a whole lot of buildings on his way to Golgotha, mostly by throwing a rather sympathetic Satan through them. This is a motif in the film that many critics point and laugh at, but to the Christian viewer who is willing to stretch his or her imagination, it can be thought-provoking and it might just be profound.

Does a Christian really believe that the coming of Christ had a profound impact on the world? If so then we must accept that it was an act of utter violence, not just to the body of Jesus, but to the structures and fabric of human civilization. Christ is every bit as offensive to our world (including us) as Superman is to Metropolis’s version of Grand Central Terminal.

I do not suggest that this is a great film (though I freely admit enjoying it a great deal). I do, however, think that it offers the Christian who is willing to challenge his or her own personal orthodoxies an opportunity to do so. For the Christian who is, as Larsen complains about, simply trying to project dogma upon the movie, I agree that their efforts are juvenile. Shallow readings such as these have done incalculable damage to the Christian Imagination.

There is, though, a possible second direction in this cultural exchange. There is a revolutionary quality to Jesus’s messianic work, and revolutions do not look like Vacation Bible School crafts. By reflecting the horror of abject violence back at Christians who want to see smiling, gentle Jesus in everything, Man of Steel forces the imaginatively vibrant Christian to come to terms with a disturbing element of the faith, and though perhaps not entirely orthodox in itself, this vision can strengthen Orthodoxy in the long run. This, however, requires a dedication by the Christian to engage with culture via multi-lane highways, not, as Larsen identifies, one way streets.

Though we may like to imagine Jesus as muscle-bound in spandex, there are consequences inherent in that image. But I argue that the Christian Imagination is an underdeveloped muscle that needs tossed against a few buildings from time to time.

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Critics of Steel

Man of Steel

I am not well-equipped to comment about current events or, God-forbid, new movies. For whatever reason, having opinions about new things doesn’t interest me, and it sure doesn’t come very naturally.

I am, however, a bit confused at the critical reaction to the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. So confused, in fact, that I must jot a few notes down about it. I just returned from watching it with our French exchange student and was surprised to find myself entranced. I had gone in expecting to be underwhelmed and was, happily, not.

I’m not a movie critic, so I won’t play on in the blogosphere, but as a viewer of the film and an observer of culture, I found it to be thrilling, thought-provoking, and full of heart, everything its critics say it is not. Ultimately, I think that the movie has much to add to our contemporary discourse regarding the freedom of the individual to be unpredictable and, thereby, vital.

The Atlantic‘s Connor Simpson recapped the movie’s opening-weekend success in a rather snarky way:

Hey, so, a whole lot of people sat through this two and a half hour bad movie. Man of Steel’s very successful opening weekend in the wake of a week of bad press for being not good and also kind of soulless was definitely a surprise. This was the second best opening of the summer. The only movie to have a better opening weekend was Iron Man 3. It’s just another example of D.C. falling behind Marvel at the movie theater. But, who cares? This thing already has a sequel planned and will make a jillion dollars globally. Then, in three years, we’ll get an equally bad and soulless sequel and the same thing will happen because people won’t remember how bad this one is. The movies are just magical.

A heartfelt, soulful review if there ever was one. Also, it’s probably worth noting that the definitive evidence offered in his summation of critical response were links to two other articles from The Atlantic. So at least he did his due diligence, I guess.

In all fairness, though, I read other responses to the film in advance and the sentiments described above pretty well cover much of the critical reaction. However, to read this blurb one would think that the film was universally panned. On the contrary, Rotten Tomatoes has it checking in in the mostly good range, with audience reaction positive by a wide margin. 

As I’ve said, I’m not interested in bashing critics, but I am confused about what they want at times. Is it too ridiculous? Is it too serious? Can it be both? (I’ve linked only to the same Atlantic articles as above, so I guess I’m a lazy reviewer too).

Let me just say that I think Superman is difficult to film in our day. He is not dark. He is an overwhelmingly good person. This has been traditionally what makes the movies about him suffer in recent years. How many ways can we think of to get kryptonite into our hero’s general vicinity?

I thought that Man of Steel did the only thing that could have been done with such a dilemma. It made the notion of actually being Superman central to the plot. So yes, this means that much of the opening act will be pensive and serious. What does it mean to be Superman in the modern world? For all those complaining about Christopher Nolan’s darker influence in the film, perhaps the answer is that it means something similar to what it means to be Batman.

I’ve also read critics who are bored with the whole Jesus thing going on in the film’s subtext. I can see their point on some level, but I don’t see how it’s a particularly boring mechanism. In fact, it seems that messianic imagery is so inescapable in this source material that to excise it is to impose an academic orthodoxy upon it by mechanical rote. Have fun with it. Make Superman tell us that he is 33 years old (as they do in the movie). We get it. We can nod appreciatively or dismissively, whatever our religious preference.

One element of the film that I found particularly rich, and that I haven’t seen written about, is the cultural disintegration of Krypton described in the movie. Superman’s father, Jor-El (played brilliantly by Russell Crowe) is debating with General Zod (played with more nuance than he’s getting credit for by Michael Shannon). One point of contention between the men is that Superman is a product of natural childbirth, the first in centuries on Krypton. The culture had instead come to develop Matrix-style fetus-farming, genetically pre-conditioning every Kryptonian for his or her role in life. Zod was designed to be a soldier etc.

Jor-El saw this as a dangerous avoidance of chance and partially blames its de-humanizing effects for the ultimate doom of Krypton. Zod saw Jor-El’s actions as heresy. This, to me, correlates with a contemporary debate in our society.

Our economies, our technological advances, our governmental structures, and our educational systems, seem to more and more favor specialization for the individual. College degrees must be STEM degrees and so on. Against these systematic forces stand the humanists and the people of faith (too often at odds with one another to see that they share the same adversary). I draw the battle lines between the forces of icy efficiency and those of passionate humanity — though I realize that those lines are not always (or even often) very neat. Nonetheless as we allow less and less room for uncertainty and individual diversity into our policy, do we risk creating a generation of Zods? Good men defending their own individual roles against the greater good of society, and ultimately becoming monsters?

In all the critical complaints about the necessity of another origin story for Superman, perhaps what is being missed is that Superman’s origins are indelibly tied to the doom of his race. And this might stand as a warning for our own future.

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