Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
***This article may contain spoilers for the film Doctor Strange.***
There’s a moment in Doctor Strange where the titular character is sent on a dazzling, dizzying, mind-bending journey through alternate planes of existence. In his quest to heal his shattered hands and restore his career as a brilliant surgeon, Doctor Stephen Strange has abandoned Western medicine and traveled to Nepal to see an enigmatic mystic named the Ancient One. Strange’s hopes are dashed, however, when the Ancient One starts rambling on about mystic arts and other mumbo jumbo. His skepticism boiling over, Strange launches into a rant (“I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief.”)—which is precisely when the Ancient One decides to expand his mind… a lot.
As Strange travels from one plane to another, the Ancient One peppers him with questions:
You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is “real”? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses? […] This universe is only one of an infinite number. Worlds without end. […] Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange?
Altogether, it’s a trippy, visually dazzling experience—it’s the most “out there” moment in the Marvel movie franchise to date, and right up there with 2001’s “Star Gate” sequence—and afterward, Strange is baffled and confused. His staunchly materialistic view (or, as he puts it, “We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe”) has become as shattered as his hands.
Essentially, he’s been humbled as a result of experiencing something far greater than himself.
At the film’s beginning, Stephen Strange is a man who cares only about his skills and reputation as a neurosurgeon without peer. He uses people to get recognition and approval while quickly and contemptuously dismissing anyone who doesn’t meet his standards. After a car accident strips those things away from him, he grows increasingly desperate to regain what he’s lost, even to the point of lashing out at everyone trying to help him.We may not be responsible for defending mystical sanctuaries with extra-dimensional energies à la Strange and his companions, but each of us has been given a little corner of the world for which we are responsible.
It’s only after Strange is exposed to, and humbly accepts, the fact that reality is bigger, grander, more mysterious—and more frightening—than he could ever imagine, that he’s able to start down a path to redemption. (I’m reminded here of God’s confrontation with Job, during which God forces Job to consider his status in creation, which leaves Job deeply humbled yet restored.) He’s made aware of two great truths—truths that become a source of strength as he battles a renegade sorcerer named Kaecilius and a malevolent extra-dimensional entity named Dormammu.
The first truth is that the world does not, nor has it ever, revolved around his reputation or abilities. (Or, as the Ancient One puts it, “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all… It’s not about you.”) The second truth is that, even though he’s nowhere near as important as he once thought, he’s still far more than a “momentary speck in an indifferent universe.”
These truths represent a paradox that may not make any sense, but nevertheless, they grant Strange the resolve necessary to save the world. Simultaneously, they gave me a measure of comfort as I emerged from the theatre to news of the 2016 election results. (To director Scott Derrickson’s great credit, I was able to forget all about the election while I was watching Doctor Strange.)
For months now, we’ve been inundated by displays of this world’s power at its nastiest and least edifying. We’ve been overwhelmed by displays of racism, sexism, narcissism, and corruption that boggle the mind, almost as if they’ve originated in some dark dimension. We’ve seen once-admired leaders hold their noses and compromise their convictions for vague promises of political power. We’ve seen the steady decline of public discourse matched by an equally steady increase in social and cultural fracturing. Many of us have never felt so out-of-step or disconnected from the powers that be; we’ve never been so perplexed at how things apparently work now.
To be reminded that there’s more to reality than the world we’ve seen during this election cycle—a world dominated by fear, name-calling, mudslinging, demagoguery, and corruption—is both humbling and comforting. Indeed, as I drove home from the theatre, I found myself smiling, even laughing, with relief. It’s both humbling and comforting to realize that the world is not about you and your agendas—that indeed, our desires are dwarfed by the sublime, terrifying wonders of creation and existence. Even more important for the Christian, this means realizing that our agendas, however good they may be, will never measure up to God’s plan to restore His creation, spread His kingdom, and magnify His glory.
None of this means we should grow despondent, throw our hands up, ask “What’s the point?” and surrender to apathy. Despite knowing how dwarfed he is by the multiverse, Strange nevertheless fights on to protect it. We may not be responsible for defending mystical sanctuaries with extra-dimensional energies à la Strange and his companions, but each of us has been given a little corner of the world for which we are responsible. Existence may not be about us and our agendas, but we still have roles to play, abilities to utilize, and communities to serve. We are more than momentary specks. However, we must never forget that our actions take place within a much larger cosmic drama, even if we can’t always see it. It’s not about us.
Though it doesn’t explore such ideas with orthodox Christian terms and language, these are ideas that can and should resonate with believers. At the very least, the film’s resounding rebuke of a purely materialistic universe ought to pique our curiosity. (Not surprisingly, writer/director Derrickson is a Christian himself.) But even without orthodox language, I believe Doctor Strange gives Christians a tantalizing view of a reality that, for now, we only see through a glass darkly. Or, to put it another way, Doctor Strange offers numerous visually stunning reminders that there is a far greater struggle going on all around us unseen (for now).
At several points in the film, we see Strange and others engage in duels during which they lash out at each other with mystical weapons and energies, and reshape reality around them, similar to Inception’s dream sequences. But even as they battle on busy city streets in New York and Hong Kong, people walk right past them completely oblivious to the titanic and terrifying battles happening all around them. How dissimilar is this to spiritual warfare?
Spiritual warfare isn’t really something we Christians talk about anymore, perhaps for fear of seeming too weird. Or maybe the idea just creeps us out after having read too many Frank Peretti novels in the ’80s. And yet the Bible makes it very clear that there are powers and principalities at work in unseen realms, with heavenly forces opposing them in conflicts that dwarf anything that happens here in the physical world.
Leave it to a big budget Hollywood superhero movie to create a poignant and powerful reminder that there’s more to the world than what we can see. We have a role to play in restoring creation as Christ works through His Church, but there are unseen battles waging all around us—conflicts that would likely render us insane were we ever to catch a glimpse of one this side of eternity.
I certainly enjoyed Doctor Strange for what it was: a well-made, visually awesome superhero movie that adds something new to the seemingly endless Marvel movie franchise. It’s no Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America: Civil War, but even as it comfortably plays within certain genre tropes, it takes us places and shows us things that no Marvel movie has shown us before, which is commendable in its own right.
But I also enjoyed Doctor Strange for another reason: it may not have literally sent me traveling through extra-dimensional realms but it did give me a much-needed perspective shift on election night. As a Christian, I should certainly be concerned about the affairs of this world. I am worried what the coming years will mean for my friends and neighbors, for those who have already experienced so much shame and ostracism in our country, and for the world as a whole. And no matter what, I am called to love my neighbor, care for the fatherless and the widow, and work for justice and mercy.
At the same time, however, I am not autonomous; existence doesn’t revolve around my biases, preferences, identities, agendas, and causes, however good they might be. The struggles of this world are important but they are momentary in the light of eternity—in the light of a reality that is grander and deeper and more complex than our minds can conceive, much less handle. There is so much more to reality than this material world and its ugly power struggles—and that, if I may quote another powerful wizard, is an encouraging thought during these uncertain times.
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