My spiritual mentors include Jesus Christ; the Apostle Paul; pastors Paul Valentine and Colby Willen at Providence Community Church in Lexington, Kentucky; several usual-suspect Johns (Calvin, Piper, MacArthur); and Harry Potter, Captain America, and Spider-Man.
This is no joke. I couldn’t be more serious. Though God first reveals Himself in the Bible, and in its preaching, He also gives us echoes of His Word and reflections of His image in secular novels and films.
Is this silly to say? Does this view demean the sufficiency of God’s Word as some Christians would suspect, even those who enjoy novels or films mainly for their entertainment? Or might my statement over-spiritualize the role of art and culture, which some critics say should not be required to be “redemptive” in order to be worthy?
For either set of critics, I could write a whole systematic-theological argument on the role of stories in personal sanctification. Or I could simply share how this has happened to me.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
On May 4, I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Yes, Spidey was recast for the new film series; he looks and sounds different and is quicker with the quips, overkill CGI, and scene-frying villains. But to me, he was still the same Spidey whose 2000 film series helped teach me true heroism.
I’m unsure how this happened, but Spider-Man (2002) sneaked past even conservative Christians’ “watchful dragons” who monitor films for potentially objectionable content. For example, MovieGuide in its review was convinced that Green Goblin urging Aunt May to finish reciting Lord’s Prayer before he attacked her, and then saying, “Thank God for you, Peter,” meant something. Thus homeschoolers fresh from seeing The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (rated PG-13!) the previous winter flocked to see Spider-Man, including myself. And when 2004 brought Spider-Man 2, I found an even better story picture to reflect so many new elements of my life: college, crushes, life changes, and how to grow into a man by putting others’ needs ahead of yourself.
To this day I can remember Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2’s final battle recalling the truth he had just learned and repeating it to a remorseful Dr. Octavius: “Sometimes to do what’s right, we need to be steady and give up the things we want the most — even our dreams.”
I can’t always say how, but that truth imaged by a fictional hero has aided my spiritual “revival” for years. I followed Spidey’s web all the way to the true story — God’s story — of the Hero who surrendered Himself to help people become the heroes they should be. To this day, I can credit the original Spider-Man films for helping save my marriage before it even began.
Yes, most people fault Spider-Man 3 for a bloated plot and overpopulated villains (actually, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 warrants similar criticisms). But I’m sympathetic to Spider-Man 3 for the great truth at its story’s heart: a sincere exploration of friendship and forgiveness.
However, an even more poignant image of how not to fight even your worst enemies comes from the book and film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Already I had read the book and seen the film once. Then, during my second viewing, I came to the scene in the bathroom when Harry Potter confronts his old enemy, Draco Malfoy. Harry rightly suspects Malfoy of plotting a murder and the two begin dueling, firing spell after spell, shattering mirrors, spraying water. Desperately Harry recalls an unknown spell he read in a book his friends have warned him about and summons it: “Sectumsempra!”
Draco falls to the floor convulsing. Nervously, Harry approaches and beholds the horror the strange spell has done. Dark magic has carved great bloody gashes across Draco’s chest.
There in the living room I lost it. Suddenly, I saw a new image of a real-life sickening truth: literally with a careless word, Harry has mortally wounded a live, despairing human being. Enemy or not, Draco is a person (and he is later saved by Professor Snape). To this day, this image haunts me. Surely the Holy Spirit has many times used this reminder to keep me from casting careless and hateful verbal “spells” against enemies and friends.
’Til the End of the Line
Great heroes lay down their lives for their friends (John 15:13). But the greatest heroes lay down their lives for their enemies. Spider-Man and Harry Potter do both. So does Steve Rogers — Captain America — in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Spoilers ahead: Steve’s former friend, Bucky Barnes, has been brainwashed to fight for the Nazi-like spy society Hydra. To save his country, Cap must do what it takes. Then the final battle arrives, and after saving America and the world, Steve is determined to redeem his enemy.
Steve: You know me.
Winter Soldier: No, I don’t! (He attacks Steve)
Steve: I’m not going to fight you. (He drops his iconic shield, which tumbles to the Potomac River far below) Your name is James Barnes.
Winter Soldier: Shut up! (He hits Steve)
Steve: You’re my friend.
Winter Soldier: You’re my mission! (He rains blow after blow on Steve, who refuses to retaliate.)
Steve (weakly): Then finish it. Because I’m with you ’til the end of the line.
In a world of action-film clichés — even the Christ-imaging story element of heroes who will sacrifice their lives for others — this image also haunts me. Could I sacrifice myself for someone who has been brainwashed to hate me, against his will or even willfully? Could I act as redemptively as Steve and thereby image Jesus to someone who wants to kill me? What about those times when personal enemies wound me with words or when cultural factions show worse hatred to people I love?
Echoes and Reflections
Of course, one is not limited to glorifying God through cultural enjoyments by applying direct moral lessons from heroic characters. Nor are superhero or fantasy stories with good heroes the only stories from which we can learn. But surely God has included many reflections of His truth and beauty in whatever stories you enjoy. We err if we ignore these gifts and declare that secular stories are either “just entertainment” or else sources of sin. If God can use a donkey to echo His Word even to a corrupt prophet (Num. 22), and if He can use pagan poetry to reflect part of His Gospel truth (Acts 17) or moral application (1 Cor. 15:33), then He can certainly use today’s secular stories to do the same.