Every Friday in Panel Discussion, Jeremy Writebol considers how the latest comic book releases intersect with the Good News of Christ. This piece may contain spoilers.
Right now is a great time to be jumping into the world of comic book stories. Marvel Comics in particular just finished a massive, universe-altering reboot that finds many of their stories relaunching with new premier issues. Without having to jump all the way back to the origin of a character’s story (thanks to Sony, we’ve seen Spider-Man reincarnated a few times too many lately), Marvel is giving new readers a point to jump into the lives of some of their most unique characters.
One of these characters, Doctor Stephen Strange, is probably one you’ll want to become familiar with. In 2016, one of Marvel Studio’s planned films is Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. My guess is that it’ll be a very popular film simply because of Cumberbatch’s involvement as the lead. Outside of the comic faithful, however, Doctor Strange is a lesser known character, but one that still casts a powerful spell.
Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo have taken the helm of the series as writer and artist to tell the stories of the “Sorcerer Supreme.” Aaron is an award-winning star in the world of comic book writers and has a faith background that informs much of his work. Growing up in the Deep South, he was raised in a Southern Baptist church but eventually walked away and is now a professing atheist. Even so, in a 2012 interview he admitted, “If anything, I’ve become more fascinated by religion and faith after I lost mine.” Because of that, it’ll be fascinating to see how Aaron treats Marvel’s most spiritual protagonist.Perhaps Doctor Strange shows us just where the notion of keeping everything in balance is a sinister cultural flaw.
Released on October 7, Doctor Strange #1 begins with a brief intro to the character’s origin and powers. After extensive nerve damage to his hands, Strange’s career as a surgeon was finished. Searching for any way to recover his abilities, he found meaning on a different plane of existence: the metaphysical. Through the training of a wizard known as the Ancient One, Strange became a master over the spiritual, immaterial world that threatens to destroy ours every single day. As Strange proclaims, “These hands are all that stand between you and the forces of darkness… These hands are the reason you still have a soul. You’re welcome by the way.”
Doctor Strange causes us to consider the nature of the world that we cannot perceive with our own two eyes. More than just a realm that exists outside of us and has little impact on us, Doctor Strange suggests that there is a realm of “inter-dimensional bacteria” living off our very souls: “Your soul attracts parasites as well. On a mystical level instead of a microscopic.” While Doctor Strange fights against the worst of this mystical infection that is invisible to our eyes, the fight takes its physical and spiritual toll.
The conflict of the story in Doctor Strange #1 sits between the action of the first and final movements. As Strange seeks a break from the labors of his day, we become aware of the economies involved in fighting against the powers of the spiritual realm. One of Strange’s friends puts it this way: “A life for a life. That’s how you keep the cosmic balance. Those are the costs we have to weigh, every time we say ‘Abracadabra.’” It’s because of this transaction that the following question is pressed on Strange: For all the good he’s been doing, has he been keeping the balance of the metaphysical realm? Strange’s “do-gooding” has left a massive debt on the evil side of the ledger, and that debt has yet to be paid. There must be balance.
Although we wouldn’t state it in terms of Strange’s metaphysical “good versus evil” dichotomy, it seems that our pursuit of this notion of balance is fairly entrenched in our cultural DNA. We have “healthy, balanced diets.” Our workouts are balanced, as are our budgets, priorities, and calendars. Even our spiritual life has to, in some way, be balanced. Spending too much time on one thing or another causes us to be out of shape and out of mind.
Perhaps Doctor Strange shows us just where the notion of keeping everything in balance is a sinister cultural flaw. Theologian J.I. Packer even interjects in his book Knowing God that balance is a “horrible, self-conscious word.” If this is true then the pursuit of balance could very well be at odds with the entirety of the Christian faith.
Consider the life of Christ and His pursuit of balance. There wasn’t any. Not that we would peg Jesus as some radical political extremist, but rather, He didn’t seek to live a life that made sure all of His priorities were in place or that He maintained a healthy balance of work, play, and sleep. He didn’t try and balance time with religious activities and recreational life. If anything, He was the most “unbalanced” person to ever walk the planet. In facing the real forces of the spiritual realm, Jesus didn’t appease the evil they brought with less good Himself. Instead, He pushed forward and “set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He came with a mission to fulfill and pursued it until it cost Him everything. He paid the debt Himself. Christ did not come to bring balance to the universe because evil had grown so prominent. He came to conquer sin, Satan, and death once and for all.
Jason Aaron is on to something worth our consideration in his reintroduction to Doctor Stephen Strange. As we contemplate Strange’s own deficiencies in balancing the books of good and evil, the question is posed to us, as well. Will we pay the tab of our own imbalance? Maybe the deeper question for us, though, is can we?