The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield, Free for CAPC Members
Butterfield isn’t proposing hospitality without personal boundaries, but hospitality that is open to having those boundaries widened for the sake of the gospel.
**This article contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.**
Nobody likes to find out they’ve been living in a house of cards. It’s disconcerting at best and devastating at worst, but like cracks in a foundation or mold inside a wall, there are some problems that can’t be hidden forever. They will always eventually “out,” as the expression goes, and they must be dealt with. Sin is like this and unaddressed and unrepented sin festers. This applies to our private lives; it also applies corporately to our families and our nation. A life (or a nation) built on festering sin is a house of cards, and houses of cards eventually come falling down.
This is the story told by Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel’s latest blockbuster installment in their cinematic universe. A departure in many ways from the previous two Thor films, director Taika Waititi handles with a deft and humorous hand the somber material of the death of Thor’s father Odin, the rise of Thor’s sister Hela (the goddess of death), and the end of Thor’s world of Asgard.
Taken at face value, it’s not a happy story and not many directors would be able to get us to laugh during the otherwise heavy material. But lightening the mood proves important because it draws you unexpectedly into contemplation of its deeper message — a message that’s all-too timely for us right now as much of the rot in our foundations is beginning to be exposed. Sometimes it’s during laughter that we can be caught out unawares, look over our shoulders, and ask, “Wait, is this story about us?”On whose graves, and whose suffering, is our greatness built?
Americans tend to share Thor’s good-natured bluster. We’re loud, we think we’re the best, we’re proud of our homeland, and we like to fix problems, whether they’re ours to fix or not. One of Thor’s long-standing policies is to run toward problems that need solving because, as he pithily says in the film, “That’s what heroes do!” He fights, he conquers, and he locks away the spoils in his father’s treasure vaults. The world is pretty black and white for Thor.
Ragnarok opens with just such a scene. Thor hangs suspended in a cage awaiting an audience with Surtur, a terrible demon-like god who’s foretold to destroy Asgard in Ragnarok, the Norse end-times. All Thor has to do to prevent Ragnarok is knock the crown from Surtur’s head. But never fear! Our intrepid hero succeeds, takes Surtur’s crown, and locks it away. End of the world deferred, Asgard saved, and Thor’s the conquering hero, as always. But what Thor doesn’t know is that beneath the very vault containing Asgard’s treasures are the graves of soldiers from a dark, bloody age of conquest — an age when Asgardians were not the protectors of the Nine Realms but fearsome imperialists with the goddess of death at their helm.
These facts are revealed to Thor when his father dies, releasing from bondage an older sister he never knew he had. Hela arrives, and she’s the literal embodiment of death, come to claim Asgard as her own. Asgard and Thor’s father Odin are not what he thought they were. Even Thor himself is not who he thought he was. He’s Odin’s second-born, not first-born. He’s not even the legitimate heir to the throne. The age-old sins that Odin tried to cover up have been like a cancer eating away at Asgard’s core, and they have also now eaten away the very identity of the son he bore to atone for the sins of his firstborn, Hela. Asgard’s greatness, it turns out, is built on a foundation of sin.
When Hela arrives, Thor tries to deal with the goddess of death the only way he knows how: as a hero! But he’s living in a house of cards where sin is in the foundation, and sin and death cannot be fought and defeated Avenger-style. You cannot get rid of sin and death by locking them away and pretending they don’t exist, as Odin did. Neither can pure heroism and good intentions defer death, as is Thor’s way. Eventually, sin demands a reckoning. And the wages of sin is death — in this movie a literal death, for Odin and for Asgard. The story asks us to take heed, as individuals and as a nation, to the fact that what we do in the darkness must be faced eventually in the light. Sin cannot be covered up — it must be paid for.
Hela has much work to do in Asgard, beginning with banishing Thor from the realm so she can wreak havoc without his getting in the way. Much of the film focuses on Thor’s efforts to return to Asgard to fight Hela; meanwhile, Hela is busy smashing icons and forcing all those left in Asgard to submit or die. Thor’s absence is important because it gives the Asgardians left behind a chance to decide how they’ll respond to the revelation of what’s in the foundation of their history and their city. Will they submit and bow to this embodiment of death? Or will they remain faithful to the true, the beautiful, and the good? Asgard, for all her flaws, is not wholly lost as long as a remnant of good people refuses to bow and give in to Hela’s “Make Asgard Great Again” campaign.
I’m being a little pointed here and maybe I shouldn’t draw too close of an allusion between Asgard and America. The film is, after all, not an allegory. But it does invite us to examine our own nation, and our own selves. What are our national icons? On whose graves, and whose suffering, is our greatness built? Many African Americans have asked, in response to President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign, “When was America great for us?” While there are many laudable things about America, our current house of cards sits atop a foundation of historic racial sin against African Americans that perpetuates to this day.
So the question becomes, for Thor and the Asgardians, and you the viewer, how do we balance our nation’s sins (the ugly truths of our past) with what does, in fact, make us great as a nation? To what should we cling, and of what should we repent to save our people and our very selves? What is true and good, and what is merely an icon?
National icons are rarely good, but we really like to make icons of things in America. And when we set up icons — a flag, a statue, an actor, a politician, or our very selves — it can hurt when those icons are revealed for what they are: things that take the place of God in our lives. Things that need to be smashed.
The great Puritan preacher John Owen once said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” When we allow sin to fester in our lives, we’ve set ourselves up as icons, and that sin will lead to spiritual death. When we allow sin to fester in our families and in our nation, it will eventually demand a reckoning. We’re seeing this now in Hollywood as the icons of powerful men are smashed and their sins are dragged out into the light. We’re seeing it in politics, and we’re seeing it on our sports fields. When we value flags and movies and political power over people — when we value the powerful over the weak and oppressed — sin is killing us.
There’s a moment in the film where Thor, walking through his father’s palace, has to step over the literal broken icon of himself, fallen from the ceiling to reveal the darkness of Hela beneath. He never knew Hela was there — he never knew that the golden city of Asgard was built on top of the graves of the soldiers his father used in bloody conquests to subdue the Nine Realms. He never knew about his father’s sins. But returning to Asgard at that moment, he does now know what lies in the foundations of his kingdom — and in his own family. He must decide what lies in his own heart, what it means to be a true king and leader of his people, and how to save Asgard from death.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow when Thor finally realizes that to defeat the literal goddess of death, he has to give his world over to destruction. This is a story of reckoning, after all — a story of judgment. Death must be utterly destroyed in the Ragnarok end-of-the-world scenario foretold in Norse prophecy, and the only people who will be saved are those who resisted Hela and fled to a mountain refuge — a Noahic remnant sheltered by the character Heimdall who, ultimately, helps lead them to salvation aboard a ship.
There’s hope in this remnant, as there’s hope for us. Sin always demands a reckoning, which is why Christ had to come to save us. The wages of sin may be death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The Bible is full of accounts of reckoning — from Noah to the Assyrian conquest of Israel to the Babylonian captivity to the end of days — but one common thread of hope runs through all these accounts: the survival of a faithful remnant. Sin and death destroy, but God saves. Repentance and salvation are possible, despite death. This is true in biblical narratives that point to Christ, and it’s true in our own lives where the only hope we really have is that, after the destruction of our flesh, God will take us and make us new.
At the movie’s end, Thor leads his faithful remnant away from the utter destruction of Asgard, hoping for new life and purpose away from the sins of the past. Perhaps this is just the type of story we, as a nation, need right now. A story of reckoning and hope, that we might emerge from the rubble of our smashed icons with clearer eyes and hearts. That we might repair our foundations and clean out the rot. It would be silly to suggest that America is heading for a fiery Ragnarok-type end, but there is rot in our foundation, and sin that leads to spiritual death. As our icons are dragged into the light and smashed to bits, let’s turn from our ways. No more living in a house of cards.
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