*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for The Shape of Water.*
In this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, one of the more memorable lines was from Pakistani-American comedian (and Best Original Screenplay nominee) Kumail Nanjiani, who in a montage about increasing diversity in Hollywood said “Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies starring me, and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.” In a time when it feels like certain demographics of Americans are all but at war with others, Nanjiani reminds us that isn’t difficult to view another person’s story and identify with them even if they do not look like you. The popularity of Wonder Woman and Black Panther demonstrate that a well-told superhero movie can resonate with a wide audience (including white males) even when it’s white women or Black people who can most easily see themselves in the protagonist and the white dudes are reduced to supporting roles.
This year’s Best Picture winner, however, takes Nanjiani’s line a step further, not only decentering the straight white dude but laying bare his sins. The Shape of Water is often described as a modern fairy tale, telling the love story between a mute cleaning lady and the fish-man being experimented on at the lab where she works in 1962 Baltimore; although the film incorporates elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction, and thriller, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of those genres. The Shape of Water is best understood as a mid-century creature feature remade with a contemporary eye: there is nothing in the movie to suggest that the villain wouldn’t have been the hero if it were made fifty or sixty years ago.
Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, comes to the lab with what’s referred to as the asset, an amphibious humanoid that he captured in South America; his military superiors hope that the asset’s physiology will yield knowledge allowing the United States to regain the advantage in the space race with the Soviet Union. Strickland bears all the hallmarks of a Cold War protagonist: straight, white, male, with a successful military record and a good home life, and never questioning that he is the hero of his story. He self-identifies as “decent,” and makes genial small talk with the help. He has a comfortable, fairly new house in the suburbs where he lives with his lovely wife and well-behaved children. He is Christian (of an unspecified background) and cites the Bible in the course of his work. He is dedicated to his job, and if he seems too suspicious of the scientists or cruel to the asset, his hatred of the Russians and violent history with the creature readily excuse him.
But writer/director Guillermo del Toro exposes the dark realities of such white masculinity that Cold War movies usually ignored. Strickland’s small talk is crude, and by casually discussing urination habits with two cleaning ladies, he is at best exhibiting extreme tone-deafness and at worst committing sexual harassment. He treats his wife and children as objects, and propositions the mute cleaning lady in the hopes of fulfilling his fantasy to have sex while the woman is totally silent (which definitely is sexual harassment, and of a particularly concerning sort because of the power differential between the characters). The only evidence of his religion is when he cites Genesis to identify the asset as an affront to creation and the story of Samson and Delilah to intimidate a cleaning lady in her own home; if his faith taught him to love his neighbor at all, he only does so within a very limited definition of ‘neighbor.’ He gladly shoots and tortures not just the asset but several people after his superior reminds him that the only “decency” they care about is not screwing up.
As a straight white dude, The Shape of Water thus presents a twofold challenge. First, to get into the story I must empathize with two women (one mute, the other Black), a gay man, an undercover Russian, and a fish-man. At this point, I’ve enjoyed sufficient entertainments with protagonists who don’t resemble me that this isn’t really difficult, except insofar as I forget that it’s still unusual for folks who aren’t straight white dudes to watch protagonists to whom they can readily relate. The second, harder challenge is to accept that not only does the villain look like me but everything he does would be considered acceptable and heroic by straight white dudes of his time, and indeed there are many straight white dudes today who would consider Strickland a hero for his military service and obedience, stable home life, Christian decency, and enmity toward Russians and inhuman creatures.
All of this is relevant because straight white dudes in the Episcopal Church today face the same two challenges. In the past forty years, we have grown increasingly comfortable with clergy who are homosexual, female, and/or come from non-Caucasian racial and ethnic backgrounds, and I hope and believe that most straight white dudes in the Episcopal Church have no problem seeing those who do not resemble them as their pastors and priests. But there is still much work to do, both in promoting full equality (for example, increasing the number of female bishops and eliminating the pay gap between male and female priests) and in fully incorporating children of God across less-well-trod lines of difference (such as those who are transsexual, gender-nonconforming, or facing physical disabilities).
With regard to some of the ways straight white dudes have acted as villains in the past, the Episcopal Church (and some Dioceses, parishes, and other institutions thereof) has already begun the hard work of listening as those sins are named, identifying and recognizing those whose voices were disregarded in the past, and crafting policy to address such problems going forward. Right now, for example, the University of the South is studying how its sinful racist history is encoded on its campus and considering how the work of racial reconciliation might progress. But there is much of this work still to do, and it is painful both to tell and to hear. In January, the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies issued a joint letter calling the Episcopal Church to examine and repent of our history of sexual harassment and discrimination. At the end of February, the President of the House of Deputies appointed a special committee (including two Nebraska clergy among the forty-seven members) to draft legislation for this summer’s General Convention considering gender in our theological language, addressing gender inequality in pay and benefits, and creating a truth and reconciliation process to bring our sexist sins into the light of God’s truth, among other things.
Such processes invite straight white dudes in the Church to listen to those who have been disregarded, to loose our historical grip on power, and to empathize with those who differ from us. It takes a certain mental flexibility to relate to stories that differ so greatly from our own, and a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude to hear of the sins committed by folks who look and perhaps think like us without becoming defensive, but as Kumail Nanjiani reminded us, it shouldn’t be that hard, especially when we do so with God’s help.
The Rev. John Adams
As an at least somewhat politically aware American, I frequently have thoughts (and come across the thoughts of others) about the relationship between Christianity and the United States of America. One of the most prevalent of these thoughts is the idea that the United States is a “Christian nation,” which depending on whose thoughts I’m reading might mean that our governmental structures are products of (European) Christian tradition, or our nation was founded on “Judeo-Christian values,” or the United States is meant to be led by Christians and for Christians, or God chose this nation to bring the divine light to a benighted world, by force if necessary. I find it noteworthy that I have yet to encounter a real argument for the thought that the United States is a Christian nation because it’s the government and society Jesus would have organized. That in turn raises an always interesting thought experiment: what would a truly Christian society, something that would lead Jesus to say “yeah, that’s my Kingdom,” look like today?
The obvious answer is to study the Acts of the Apostles (which I hope we all will be doing this April and May with the Good Book Club), but I find it very challenging to imagine how that earliest church might practically translate into contemporary society. For example, among the earliest disciples in Jerusalem, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32), and that has worked reasonably well for some small, self-contained communes, but not for large nations.
I recently finished the novel Walkaway by Cory Doctorow. Although it is not talking about a Christian society (and, indeed, does not include a Christian perspective even when people achieve something like immortality by digitally recording their brains), I nonetheless find it a very provocative contributor to this thought experiment. Walkaway is set in a near future where the problem of wealth and power accumulating in the hands of a select few is even more pronounced than it is now and 3D printing has evolved to the point where whole buildings can be fabricated from readily available materials. In such a world, Doctorow imagines increasing numbers of people walking away from their default reality, abandoning dead-end jobs or chronic unemployment, debts and taxes, property and possessions to live in the unpopulated wilderness. The walkaways operate in a post-scarcity economy: by ignoring intellectual property rights around the plans for printing buildings, furniture, food, medicine, and everything else, everyone’s basic survival needs are met and at least some communal comfort is provided without one person’s needs coming at another’s expense. The rich periodically send forces to attack walkaway settlements, killing or arresting those who do not flee, in an attempt to discourage others from walking away and further eroding their power base.
In one of the book’s most compelling scenes, the woman who’s done the most work toward operating a walkaway tavern/boardinghouse returns from the woods to find that another group of walkaways have arrived and begun to reorganize the establishment as a meritocracy (that food, beds, and comforts are doled out according to the work a person does rather than being given freely to all). Their leader, who had previously argued with her about this subject while living there, hopes that she will either accept their changes (under which she easily ranks as the hardest worker) or fight them for control. Instead, she announces her intention to walk away, telling him “You’ve made it clear that you’re so obsessed with this place that you’ll impose your will on it. You have shown yourself to be a monster. When you meet a monster, you back away and let it gnaw at whatever bone it’s fascinated with. There are other bones. We know how to make bones. We can live like it’s the first days of a better world, not like it’s the first pages of an Ayn Rand novel. Have this place, but you can’t have us. We withdraw our company.” Like the apostles in Acts 4, she and the friends who join her have concluded that people are more important than property and they will always sacrifice property in order to benefit everyone.
What makes Doctorow’s society of walkaways particularly striking is its willingness, in the name of building a better world, to discard ideas about society that I take for granted: that money is a necessary medium of exchange and store of wealth, that a relationship (even if it’s only fictive) exists between merit and power, that competition between people is necessary for societal improvement, that some manner of coercive force is needed to maintain order, that my specialness entitles me to more than you. The resulting society includes a number of features that might fit a Christian nation better than anything in America currently: the behavior of giving people what they need without considering whether they can afford it or do something to earn it (Luke 6:30), the refusal to wield guns or lethally defend property (Matthew 26:52), the mentality that there is an abundance if only we can trust each other to share it rather than hoard it (John 10:10), the understanding that common values are of more importance than common nationality (Galatians 3:28).
In all this, there might well be a contemporary blueprint for following the example of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) or the seventy disciples (Luke 10:4), walking away from the only society we’ve ever known without bag or sandals in order to follow our Lord, but I’m certainly not advocating that (or prepared to do it myself). However, thinking about the juxtaposition of Walkaway and Jesus’ teachings does make me wonder if things that have been part of the United States from the beginning, like our monetary system, our understanding of private property, or our personal and corporate notions of defense, might be actively holding us back from being a truly Christian nation. As one character in the book observes, drawing from game theory, if you expect your neighbor to answer the door with a gun, you’re likely to answer the door with a gun yourself, and vice versa, but that same feedback loop also applies when offering a casserole. As Doctorow put it, “You get the world you hope for or the world you fear – your hope or your fear makes it so.” What fears might we walk away from, in order to be a more recognizably Christian nation?
The Rev. John Adams
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for The Trip trilogy (2010, 2014, 2017, the latter two of which are on Netflix), and The Journey (2016, also on Netflix), although since these aren’t movies one watches for the plot, it won’t hurt you to read this.*
Among the claims of Christianity that are hard for us to believe is the assertion that love can and does conquer hate. When particular countries are constantly at war, when so much of world politics is defined by certain groups hating certain other groups, when we tend to focus more on how our neighbors might hurt us than how we might help them, it is difficult to believe that St. Paul knew what he was talking about when he stated that nothing whatsoever can separate us from the love of God. In America particularly, this difficulty is exacerbated by a culture that mostly talks about love within familial or romantic relationships, offering comparatively few examples of love conquering hate without blood or physical attraction underpinning that love. Of course, hate (and its constant companion, fear) makes for great visual entertainment in a way that love without dramatic conflict and romantic entanglement rarely does.
An exception to that is the small genre of conversational films, of which My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, 1995; Before Sunset, 2004; Before Midnight, 2013) are the best known examples. Such movies focus tightly (though not necessarily exclusively) on the interactions between two people, and the interest for the viewer lies not in the story (of which there usually isn’t much) but in the evolving dynamics of the characters in relationship as they talk.
I recently watched a pair of excellent conversational movies that remind us of the necessity of non-familial, non-romantic love to the good life and the ability of such love, developed in conversational relationship, to overcome hate. The Trip to Spain is the third of Michael Winterbottom’s films (condensed from television series) in which British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, go on restaurant tours of different parts of Europe. The trips are, in many ways, nothing more than celebrations of the good life: traversing beautiful scenery (of which Winterbottom gives us many lovely shots), eating excellent food, and talking with a good friend. Their conversations range from the purely silly (competing impersonations of Michael Caine or discussing Spanish history while deliberately confusing the Moors with famous Brits named Moore) to the deeply serious (professional struggles and jealousies or their difficulties in relating to girlfriends, wives, and children). Watching, I see a modern, upper-class distillation of several elements of the good life as identified in the ministry of Jesus. In addition to healing the sick and preaching the word, our Savior frequently left town or retreated up a mountain, to pray and perhaps be refreshed and recharged by taking in the scenery. Much of his activity seems to have taken place while dining, he scandalized the Pharisees with his willingness to eat with notorious sinners, and he left his followers with a ritual meal to observe. And I find it hard to imagine that Jesus and the twelve would have stuck together as long as they did, making only sporadic contact with their family and friends back home, if they did not genuinely enjoy talking to each other. The Trip movies remind me that Jesus liked time apart, food, and good friends, and that there is nothing selfish about making time for such things in the midst of our more active ministries of service. Sometimes embracing beauty, food, and fellowship in the face of difficulties is an important triumph of love over hate.
The Journey, although very different in tone, is also about a conversation while on a road trip between two fictionalized versions of real people. In 2006, talks at St Andrews between the British and Irish governments and leaders of Northern Ireland’s political parties led to a breakthrough agreement about the governing and policing of Northern Ireland, which a year later resulted in Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, leaders of diametrically opposed parties, having a close and effective working relationship as Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers. The film imagines the beginnings of that relationship when, during the talks, unusual circumstances orchestrated by MI5 compel the two to share a ride to the airport. Initially inhabiting separate spheres of stony silence, the two begin talking after a detour through the woods makes them wonder if MI5 is planning to kill them. Each winds up admitting things to the other that he could not admit to members of his own party (McGuinness’ regrets over some of the IRA’s violence, Paisley’s thwarted desire for martyrdom) and they together realize that part of the problem is that, to stop the cycle of violence with something less than total extermination or expulsion of one side, each party will have to agree to a peace that their own strongest supporters will hate. In the end, after reiterating that each despises what the other has stood for and done, they shake hands, agreeing to work together to give peace a chance. Although fictional, the core idea of the film rings true to the process, that peace, or at least a reduction in reciprocal hate and violence, had to begin with a deep conversation between two enemies who admit that, although they have no reason to trust each other, talking is better than killing. If we believe, as Genesis tells us, that God created humankind as good, then we have to believe that transformative conversations like this, shifting a relationship based on hate to one growing in love (or something adjacent to it), are possible.
As Christians living in hate-filled times, we must not only believe such conversations are possible but be open to participating in such conversations ourselves. Even when they are not personally felt, hate and fear in a culture have an isolating effect, separating groups according to skin color, gender, sexuality, political position, and other points of dissimilarity and through such separation making it harder for good-hearted individuals to cross such divides. But even in our smallest communities, there are individuals who social hate would pit against each other, and between whom real conversation could plant the seeds of love. And throughout this Diocese of Nebraska, there are plenty of opportunities to visit beautiful places, eat delicious food, and talk with friendly people so that, in the midst of all the hate around us, we will not lose sight of the good life that we hope, in Christ, all can enjoy.
The Rev. John Adams
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi and, to be quite honest, will be incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t seen the movie*
The Last Jedi is a remarkably deep mine of topics for conversation among Christians; I could fill this entire essay simply by listing possibilities (some of which have been excellently addressed in Ben Varnum’s essays). The Luke-Rey-Kylo storyline traces the tension between rebuilding the past (at the expense of fruitful new directions for the future) and burning the past (without trying to preserve what might be worth keeping), which is always a fruitful topic of discussion for a Church with almost two thousand years of history. The conclusion of Luke’s journey as a hero speaks to both the power and limitations of people as symbols, reminding Christians that we must neither forget the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection nor detach our understanding of Jesus as symbol from the reality described in the Gospels. Poe’s character arc reminds us of the difference between being a war hero and a leader and the problem of male distrust of women within hierarchical structures, which are important issues for our lay leaders, priests, and bishops to consider as we struggle to find our place in this modern world and slowly move toward equitable representation of women at all levels of authority. Even Finn and Rose’s (totally unnecessary to the plot) casino sidequest illustrates the problem of defining good and evil in ways that fail to consider the morality of extant economic systems.
All of that said, I was particularly drawn to two parallel scenes in the film’s climax. In one, the First Order flagship is picking off the Resistance’s unshielded transports as they attempt to escape to a fortress on the nearby planet Crait. General Leia’s lieutenant, Vice Admiral Holdo, concludes that the only way the transports might survive is for her to turn around the otherwise-empty Resistance cruiser (which had been trying to lead the First Order away from the transports) and suicidally ram the enemy ship at lightspeed, crippling it (and giving us the coolest visuals of an already beautiful movie). In the other scene, the Resistance is fighting outside the base on Crait, attempting to prevent a First Order cannon from blowing a hole through the fortress door. When it becomes apparent that the Resistance speeders lack the firepower to disable the cannon, Finn begins a suicide run, planning to crash his speeder into the cannon, but as he approaches, Rose crashes her speeder into his, saving his life, telling him something along the lines of ‘we win this war not by destroying what we hate, but by saving what we love,’ and kissing him.
Within the movie, the parallel draws attention to the fact that not all suicidal heroism is created equal. Although the military situations are comparable (each act would buy the resistance time but cannot by itself accomplish a lasting escape), the characters approach the situation from very different places relationally and motivationally. At least in the movie, Holdo appears to be respected more than loved: Poe knows her reputation but couldn’t pick her out of a lineup and has no trouble recruiting confederates for his mutiny against her, while her interactions with Leia and the other crew look more like the relations between soldiers who appreciate each other’s capabilities than friends who enjoy each other’s company. Finn, by contrast, is shown to have warm (and possibly romantically-inclined) relations with Rey and Poe and a budding (if possibly one-way) romance with Rose; the trust Poe shows Finn in dispatching him on the sidequest is the trust between friends, not the trust a leader has for his most capable subordinate. Holdo’s decision is shown to be rooted in military tactics: she looks around the bridge for other options before concluding that nothing else will save the transports. Finn’s decision is personal: he intends to hurt those who hurt him even at the cost of his life. Holdo sacrifices her life because she believes that without doing so none of her subordinates will live, while Finn attempts to sacrifice himself out of desperation to eliminate the cannon by any means necessary.
This contrast is relevant because, as Christians, we follow Jesus, who chose to die on the cross rather than rally twelve legion of angels to save him (Mt 26:53), who told his disciples to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” losing their lives for his sake (Mk 8:34-35), who said “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). As we were reminded in seminary, preachers must be very careful with the texts about self-denial and self-sacrifice because, historically, they have been applied to reinforce rather than reduce power differentials in Christian societies. Women have been told to deny themselves to support their husbands, giving up their ambitions and personal comforts to care for men. In America, Black slaves have been compelled to sacrifice their lives in service of white owners, for no nobler cause than a profitable cotton crop or an immaculate house. These texts have often been used to keep the poor and powerless in their place rather than to encourage the rich and powerful to make real, painful sacrifices in service of others.
But when Jesus tells us to deny ourselves and suggests that sacrificing even our own lives is an act of love, he is not talking about the poor becoming poorer to benefit the rich or the powerless giving their lives for the powerful. Jesus held a power greater than any person on earth, yet he chose to die to save everyone who has less power. The call to love your neighbor as yourself is an invitation for those with power in a given system to give it up in love of others so that all can choose self-denial rather than some having it forced upon them. Vice Admiral Holdo, a powerful and respected figure, sacrificed herself in service of those under her authority, dying alone instead of attempting to escape alone. Finn, a hero with authority so limited that he couldn’t even commandeer an escape pod, tried to sacrifice himself in anger and frustration over his powerlessness against his oppressors, before Rose intervened to insist that instead of dying alone, he live or die together with the remnant of the Resistance. The former shows how the powerful might sacrifice even their lives in loving service of others, as Jesus commands; the latter reminds us that, for those denied worldly power, living together in the face of oppression may be a greater sacrifice, and a greater act of love, than dying.
And on that note, my thanks to all of you for reading the Eggplant through its first dozen columns. Have a happy Christmas and a blessed New Year!
The Rev. John Adams
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok.*
Ragnarok is perhaps the most enduring aspect of Norse mythology. The heroic gods of Asgard and their treacherous foes meet in a final battle that spells doom for both. The Einherjar (who died gloriously in battle) and the legions of Hel (who did not) will slaughter each other. Fenris Wolf, the gigantic son of Loki, will slay Odin, the king of the gods, only to fall at the hands of Odin’s son Vidar. Odin’s son Thor, the god of thunder, and Jormungundr, the Midgard serpent and another spawn of Loki, will end each other, as will the trickster god Loki and Heimdall the watchman. Surtur the fire giant will burn the nine realms, but after the destruction new life will spring from the world tree. (For an introduction to these stories, I would highly recommend Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.)
Early in November, Marvel released Thor: Ragnarok, the third standalone film starring the character based on the Norse god of thunder. Although a movie that was a straight-up retelling of Ragnarok myth could be awesome, this is not that movie (although, as a genuinely funny and consistently entertaining superhero movie, it nonetheless flirts with awesomeness). The relationship between the Thor movies and the mythology that inspired them is tenuous at best: the Marvel characters of Thor, Loki, and Odin are recognizably drawn from their Viking roots, but the plotlines of the movies have little to do with the myths. Ragnarok is most definitely revisionist mythology, appropriating a few elements from the story in service of a radically different plot.
Interestingly, Ragnarok is keenly aware that it is revisionist mythology, and a significant theme in the movie is how we re-imagine our stories for our own ends. Upon his return to Asgard, Thor walks in on a play retelling the conclusion of the previous movie (Thor: The Dark World). The play was apparently written by Loki, who secretly took Odin’s form and position as ruler of Asgard at the end of that movie, and the writing recasts those earlier events so that Loki dies a hero’s death and receives praise from his adoptive father and brother (Odin and Thor). The play’s blatant (and highly amusing) reinterpretation of events that have gone before reminds us that even the treacherous Loki is a hero in his own story, and sets the stage for the movie’s fascinating reinvention of Ragnarok.
The main thrust of Ragnarok entails a wholly new spin on the backstory of Odin and the nine realms. After the events of The Dark World, Odin has been approaching the end of his life exiled in Norway. His death releases the bonds that kept Hela imprisoned, and she appears and quickly proves herself more powerful than Thor or Loki. Instead of being Loki’s daughter and the queen of Hel (the realm of the undistinguished dead), this version of Hela is Odin’s firstborn and served as the leader of Asgard’s armies during the conquest of the nine realms. Afraid of her ambition to expand Asgard’s rule even further and regretting the bloody conquest that had already taken place, Odin had Hela imprisoned and written out of history so effectively that neither Thor (who Odin sired in the hope of handing the throne of Asgard to him instead) nor Loki (who has a tendency to ferret out secrets) had any idea of her existence. When Hela enters the throneroom of Asgard, she tears down the frescoes depicting the nine realms at peace under the benevolent guidance of Odin and Thor, revealing another set of frescoes beneath them showing Odin and Hela as conquerors slaughtering their enemies. Unlike her father, Hela feels no guilt over their past and is proud of her martial exploits and cruelty. Although the film doesn’t draw particular attention to it, this scene serves as a marvelous indictment of the European and American desire to forget the atrocities of the past and pretend that our colonialism was all for the good (because, if our ancestors did it, then we can’t challenge the morality of it).
After an adventure as a gladiator on another planet entirely, Thor returns to Asgard with new allies to fight Hela in the hope of averting Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard. As it becomes increasingly apparent that Hela is unbeatable as long as she’s drawing power from Asgard (as is her birthright), Thor concludes that instead of canceling the apocalypse he must instigate it, because destroying Asgard is the only way to prevent Hela from conquering other worlds. Loki commences Ragnarok by manifesting Surtur, and his flames bring an end to both Asgard and Hela. In this complete revision of the myth, a few familiar elements of Ragnarok have been appropriated for a sequence of events that is no longer the end of all things but merely the destruction of one realm and the death of a super-villain (and of course the eradication of hordes of civilians and minions, but who’s counting?).
Having passed Thanksgiving, we are now firmly within secular Christmas season, a time of inescapable holiday music, evergreens and lights decorating everything, and ubiquitous reminders to show our relatives and friends that we love them by buying them things. The most common Christmas stories lack even a tangential relationship to the Biblical Christmas story: a bearded stranger in red sends his minions to spy on children before entering their houses with presents, an oppressive curmudgeon is frightened into acting with basic human decency, a reindeer is bullied because of his physical difference until that difference proves useful to the other reindeer.
Sometimes it even feels like we are revising Christmas in the Gospels to something far less world-shattering, as Ragnarok did with Ragnarok. The birth of Jesus is an ugly thing, at least according to Luke: a boy is born to an unwed mother in the ancient equivalent of a garage, surrounded by animal dung, in a town in which she was an unwelcome stranger. Yet in Christmas pageants, crèches, and sometimes even sermons, the birth is reduced to something cute and “aww”-inspiring, and in those same stories, we tend to forget that this child came into the world to end the world as we know it, to overturn imperial orders based on power and inaugurate a new kingdom rooted in love. In almost direct contrast to our secular revision of Christmas, Jesus’ birth calls us to live in a new world in which my wants as an individual and our wants as a group do not come at the expense of another’s needs. Where our revisions of Christmas seek to overturn nothing more dramatic than a child’s ranking of her favorite toys, the Gospel Christmas story seeks nothing less than the end of the world as presently ordered.
So as we enjoy the music, the lights, the piney smells and minty tastes, the presents, and all the other trappings of our current revision of Christmas, let us not forget that, in the Bible, the Christmas story is the beginning of a radically different plot, one that challenges us to live in love for enemies and strangers as much as relatives and friends. Let us heed the warning of Mary, who knew her son would lift up the lowly and fill the hungry but scatter the proud, send the rich away, and bring down kings. Let us remember that, in resurrection as in Ragnarok, the old world must die so that the new may arise.
The Rev. John Adams
*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot of Blade Runner 2049.*
One of the fun things about having friends who watch the same kinds of movies you do is the dialogue that happens when two of you have different responses to the same film. Sometimes I love a movie and my conversational partner had some reservations (as with Wonder Woman, where two different interpretations of the killing of Ares within Diana’s moral arc led to my assertion that the movie had a good argument for best superhero film ever and my friend’s thought that it couldn’t claim much more than best DCEU movie). Sometimes we can argue about the reasons for a movie’s badness (would Suicide Squad have been most improved by more Joker or less?). Most interesting is when one person likes a movie for certain reasons and another dislikes it for a completely different set of reasons.
Such was the case in multiple discussions recently about Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the 1982 film about a cop hunting and retiring (killing) rogue replicants (robots who look and mostly act perfectly human). My problems with the film mostly related to the plot, which I found complex to the point of distraction and including a number of points of which I simply could not make sense. (To offer one example of a plothole that still bugs me, at one time a replicant working for an evil tycoon is seen stealing evidence from an LAPD station after having killed the lab technician. Later, the same replicant is in the same station, having a conversation with the officer supervising the investigation to which the stolen evidence was relevant. The replicant murders the officer before using her biometrics to access the case files, and again there’s no sign that anyone is aware of or concerned by the felonies the replicant is committing within a police station. The only somewhat convincing explanation I’ve heard is the implication that the LAPD is entirely in the tycoon’s pocket and thus all his employees have immunity, but if that’s the case, he could get the information without leaving bodies behind.)
Three different friends argued that I was looking at the movie the wrong way, that even if I found the plot too confusing and open-ended, I should still be focusing on the film’s virtues. Technically, the film is gorgeous, with every frame’s look crafted to perfection, and any awards it gets for cinematography, production design, and visual effects will be well-deserved. Thematically, Blade Runner 2049 addresses that core human problem of othering: the replicants are not considered people despite being human in both appearance and behavior, and are socially (though not economically) the lowest of the low on earth and used as slave labor on other worlds. The protagonist, K, is a replicant who hunts and retires older model replicants that lack the obedience programmed into newer models, and we see him wrestling with the fact that he is an artificial intelligence who makes a living by destroying other AIs. His relationship with his boss at the LAPD is uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has tried, across a power differential, to cultivate genial personal relations with someone from a completely different background (racial, social, economic, or otherwise); even the best-intentioned question can prove extremely awkward. K has a romantic relationship with an entirely holographic AI; although she cannot physically interact with him, their romance is by far the most human interaction between any of the movie’s characters. A scene in an orphanage that bugged me because it ultimately serves no purpose in the plot and adds to an overlong runtime is, in fact, critical: while this huge warehouse is filled with unwanted human children being worked like slaves, K and the evil tycoon are racing (and the latter killing) to find the child of a replicant. Although believed to impossible, if a replicant bore a child it would upend the understanding that replicants were neither human nor alive but also give the tycoon the technology to allow his slave empire to reproduce and thus expand exponentially; the contrast in value between one non-human child and hundreds of human children is startling. My friends’ point is that, if I stop being so concerned with the trees of the plot and start attending to the thematic forest, I’ll find a whole lot to like in Blade Runner 2049.
I hope that those themes suggest many things about how we as Christians might identify and heed the humanity of the dehumanized, interact with our neighbors from radically different backgrounds, and critique the values our society puts on different sorts of human lives. But my purpose in relating these conversations is less about the themes of Blade Runner 2049 and more about the plot-focused way I initially approached it.
Like many folks who were raised in the church, my early exposure to the Bible was mostly through Sunday School stories, some of which get regularly addressed in adult church (Jesus walking on water or feeding five thousand) and some of which don’t, at least in my experience (Samson or David and Goliath). As you might imagine, I was the sort of child who poked at the holes in the story (if Adam and Eve had no daughters, how did their sons have children?), but I was also the sort of child who struggled to reconcile some of these stories with what my parents and priest told me was the main idea of the Bible: God loves us and wants us to love God and each other. How does wiping out almost all life on earth in a flood or slaughtering the inhabitants of Jericho fit into God’s love?
As I got older, such discrepancies became more evident in the behavior of Jesus’ followers. Just as I got so hung up on the murders in the LAPD that I missed the deeper themes of the film, in college I realized that, with regard to homosexuality, I was so focused on a few Bible verses (whose meaning is more ambiguous than I thought) that I was completely neglecting the ways that loving neighbors, strangers, and enemies might apply. In history classes, it became obvious that, although genocide does not fit with the command to love that weaves throughout the canon, crusaders, conquistadores, and cowboys had nonetheless seized on the plot point of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land to justify slaughtering the native populations of territory they coveted. Because loving God, one another, and oneself is very difficult in practice, we who give the Bible authority in our lives often find it easier to seize on plot details that might offer us exceptions to the commandment, and many reject Christianity entirely because they focus on such hateful stories rather than the overarching theme of love.
So as we read Holy Scripture, I wonder what we’re taking away from it. Are we modeling our lives around recurring themes like mercy, justice, and love? Are we taking our cue from a few plot points that make us feel most comfortable, at the risk of being distracted from the larger themes? Or are we rejecting the whole thing because we’re stuck in the plotholes?
The Rev. John Adams
*Spoiler alert: The following contains spoilers of Game of Thrones Season 7, used for illustrative purposes.*
As a priest, and someone who believes in the importance of confessing one’s sins, I should confess that, for the past couple of months, I have been actively cheering for a romance that undeniably violates the Biblical rules of proscribed sexual relations. Specifically, I have been rooting for two characters in Game of Thrones who are aunt and nephew to fall in love and begin a relationship, in direct contravention of Leviticus 18:12 (“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister”).
In my defense, there are mitigating circumstances. Because I read George R. R. Martin’s books, on which Game of Thrones is based, long before the show was even in development, I’ve known Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen for many years, and they’ve been favorites of mine just as they’ve been favorites of many fans of both the books and the show. In addition to being interesting, likeable, and mostly competent as leaders, Jon and Daenerys are two of the few characters who’ve survived to this point that fans can imagine in something resembling a healthy romantic relationship with another character, though to this point in the books the two have never been in anything approaching geographical proximity.
Season 7, however, is the second season in which the show has advanced beyond the books, treating fans to some long-anticipated moments, a few big surprises, and the confirmation of a very popular theory about Jon’s parentage. Up until the end of Season 6, Jon was believed to be the bastard son of Ned Stark, the series’ first protagonist, but based on careful study of the books, fans had theorized that Jon was actually the son of Rhaegar, Daenerys’ much older brother, and Ned’s sister. The Season 7 finale not only confirmed the theory but established that Jon’s parents had gotten married in secret.
Over the course of July and August’s episodes, Jon and Daenerys met as potentially rival monarchs, considered the possible shape of an alliance between them, and brought out the best in each other as leaders (and as actors). As we watched the obvious physical attraction growing between them, Daenerys risked her life to save Jon, he pledged fealty to her, and we saw him enter her cabin by night while we listened to voiceover from two other characters putting together the pieces that revealed Jon as Daenerys’ nephew.
For me, and many other fans if the internet is any indication, this raised all kinds of mixed feelings. On the one hand, we love these characters, they fell for each other while ignorant of their familial relationship (how they react when they find out is a mystery awaiting us in Season 8), and we’ve seen how good they are together and for each other. On the other hand, nobody likes cheering on incest, especially when so many of the show’s tragic events are consequences of the ongoing affair between the queen of the realm and her twin brother. In the balance, I’ve concluded that, for Daenerys and Jon, I’m okay with it, even though it does violate my Biblical understanding of acceptable sexual relations.
My purpose in making this confession is not to justify my enjoyment of entertainment featuring plenty of morally reprehensible behaviors, but to wrestle with a deeper issue. In cheering for the incestuous romance between Jon and Daenerys, am I offering grace to familiar, beloved fictional characters that I wouldn’t extend to strangers in real life? Do I condemn a behavior in the abstract only to offer absolution when I know and like the practitioners?
This is a not insignificant problem. The less well we know a person, the easier it is for us to denounce their sin; the better we know someone’s story, the more likely we are to forgive the errors they commit. Although the Gospels don’t explicitly state this, the Pharisees and Jesus embody this tension: the former named tax collectors and prostitutes as irredeemable sinners and avoided them like the plague, while the latter ate with them and loved them as children of God. Once you’ve heard the story of a woman forced into prostitution by her boyfriend or kidnapped and trafficked halfway across the globe, you cannot consider prostitutes a bunch of hopeless, wanton temptresses.
Or look at King David, who abuses his power to commit adulterous rape and has a loyal soldier betrayed to his death to cover it up. Such behavior is really difficult to excuse, and yet, in Judaism and Christianity, David’s story is often told and his egregious sins are absolved. Like Daenerys and Jon, we know and like David enough to continue rooting for him even after what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah, and he remains a central and revered figure in the history of our forebears in faith.
As followers of Jesus, we must navigate between an ethical Scylla and Charybdis here. There is the danger that, with our friends and loved ones, we know them so well that we will readily excuse their sinful behaviors without considering the real harm they might be doing to themselves or others. But there is an at least equal danger that we will condemn people over a behavior viewed from a distance, without asking for their story or considering the possibility that they made the most moral decision they could in the circumstances.
I noticed this in myself as Hurricane Irma approached Florida. Although I assumed without asking that a friend who chose not to leave was making the right decision, I found myself judging the masses who didn’t evacuate as foolish. It took reading an article that spelled out the reasons interviewees weren’t leaving (such as being unable to afford gas, lacking transportation options at all, and having no place to go beyond the hurricane’s path) for me to understand that failure to evacuate is not just a product of unthinking stubbornness. And as I waited for the predictable headlines about looting, I realized that I had already read the looters’ stories: the same constraints that prevent people from evacuating can also result in a closed store being the only available source of food.
I could go on with examples: I was a homophobe before befriending a couple of gay men in the Episcopal campus ministry, I didn’t really understand the need for feminism until I dated a woman who told me about the discrimination and dismissal she faced, I avoided the post-9/11 Islamophobia only because one of my quiz bowl teammates was Muslim. My point is that, when all we see is a forest defined by a common behavior or trait, it’s easy to judge the whole forest sinful and worthy of burning; when we see even one individual tree in that forest and know their story, we must confront the fact that every tree has their own story, and on hearing that story, we might find ourselves identifying their sin as an expression of love and not a sin at all, or might forgive that particular sinner as doing their best under the circumstances, or might just be willing to leave judgment to God and love the person anyway.
So while I continue to believe that incest is sinful behavior and I would have a much harder time cheering for a marriage between real practitioners thereof than I do the fictional Jon and Daenerys, I do wonder if there are groups of people who I perceive as sinners in the abstract to whom I would extend grace if I knew one of them individually. And that, in turn, reminds me that my first duty is to love my neighbors, which I cannot do without knowing them, which I cannot do if I’ve already judged them in the abstract, before listening to their story.
The Rev. John Adams
Last month, our Diocesan summer camp, Camp Canterbury, gathered with a storytelling theme; through our worship, discipleship groups, and workshops, we practiced telling our own stories, listening to the stories of others, and connecting our stories with the great story of God’s relationship with creation. Of particular interest to me was the slam poetry workshop; the campers were invited to take a story (Biblical or otherwise) and write a poem imagining that story from the perspective of a non-speaking animal or object (the birth of Jesus from the donkey’s perspective, for example). I was struck when a couple of campers shared poems from the perspective of weapons in pop culture (a villain’s baseball bat and a hero’s lightsaber) and they instinctively observed that the inanimate object, not having to buy into its wielder’s story of good and evil, could question the morality of the killings it was executing.
Since then, I’ve often found myself reflecting on the degree to which our ethics are framed by the story we imagine ourselves living, and how a problem that seems to be a difficult ethical dilemma if you’re telling yourself one story becomes totally obvious if you think you’re in a different story. A good example of this is depicted in American Fable, a genre-defying 2016 film that recently showed up on Netflix. Set during the Reagan era in a depressed rural community, we enter the story from the perspective of Gitty, a farmer’s daughter with a fantastic imagination. While exploring the officially-off-limits silo at the edge of their property, she finds that it is occupied by a mysterious man. Based on a story he tells her, Gitty imagines the man as a wish-granting spirit, like a leprechaun or genie, and brings him food and books while he teaches her to play chess.
The viewer slowly discovers that, in her father’s story, the farm is failing, he is deep in debt, and he is working with a mysterious woman (who his daughter sees as a demonic figure riding around) in a desperate attempt to hold onto his property. At the woman’s behest, the farmer has imprisoned the man whose company is buying up farms in the region; when the man is ransomed, the woman will give the farmer the money he needs to keep going. As a viewer, it makes for an interesting ethical statement: in the abstract, hopefully all of us would consider holding another person against his will an immoral act, but the farmer clearly believes that he is doing right in causing the man minimal harm in order to protect his own property and family, and when we watch his story, we find ourselves sympathizing if not agreeing with the decision he made.
The movie then takes a turn when it comes out that Gitty has been talking to the captive, shattering the illusions that only the farmer and the mysterious woman know there’s someone in the silo and that the captive is ignorant of his captor’s identity. As the farmer agonizes over what to do, Martin (Gitty’s older brother) decides to take matters into his own hands: having been told by the mysterious woman that the world is divided into warriors and the weak whom the warriors defend, Martin decides that he must be a warrior, doing anything necessary to protect his family. In his story, all ethical dilemmas are framed and solved by determining which course of action best helps or least harms the family, without weighing other considerations.
American Fable truly impressed me as a film that allows the viewer to see how a complicated ethical challenge looks different when seen as part of three different stories: Gitty’s childish fantasy, the farmer’s desperate fight against economic problems, and Martin’s story of himself as a warrior. Within the children’s stories, the solution to the problem of the man in the silo is completely obvious even as each child is certain the other is wrong. For the farmer, the children’s black-and-white perspectives force him to consider his actions as told through stories other than his own.
Without delving too deep into the political weeds, I hope the implications for our national and religious lives are obvious: the story you imagine yourself in will dictate what you consider ethical responses to the problems we face. For example, if the story of America is the story of European Christians who left in order to freely practice their brand of Christianity, then it is ethical to suppress Islam in America. If the story of America is the story of enterprising Europeans who left in order to establish their own economic hegemony, then the preservation of that order becomes the highest good. If the story of America is the story of folks who truly believed in contrast to Europe that “all men are created equal,” then the moral thing to do is whatever opposes extant inequalities and expands the definition of men to cover all people living here.
The same thinking applies to Christianity. How do you understand the story of Jesus? Is it the story of an exemplary moral teacher? The story of the prophet of the end times? The story of a substitutionary sacrifice for human sin? The story of a movement that offers the only way for people to join God? The story of God telling us through Word and example that God is love and we are to love God and one another? The story of Jesus as you understand it will determine what you think the moral responses are to religious plurality, diversity of sexuality and gender, wars and rumors of wars, poverty, climate change, and other great issues of our times. And the different ways we understand the story of Jesus help explain the intractable differences between Christians over such issues.
I believe that the story of Jesus is the story of God’s love, and that of other ways to understand the story some are less wrong than others. But I’m not trying to make a polemical point as much as I am trying to encourage you to be aware of the stories you imagine yourself in as an individual, as an American, as a Christian, as a rancher, as a gunowner, as middle-class, as whatever. If you are conscious of the stories you tell yourself, and aware how your stories frame your ethical perspectives, then you can be more attentive to the stories of others, and thus see how the different stories suggest different moral actions. Maybe in doing so we will start to identify problems in our stories that lead us to take actions others find immoral, but at a minimum, God willing, all of us will be better able to exchange stories while acknowledging the full humanity of each storyteller.
The Rev. John Adams
At the beginning of July, Series 10 of the revived Doctor Who concluded its two-and-a-half-month regular run (with a Christmas Special still to come). Doctor Who is a long-running BBC science fiction show that follows the adventures of the Doctor, an alien Time Lord who freely travels through space and time, usually with one or more human companions from contemporary Britain. At least once per season, the Doctor saves the earth and/or humankind from an existential threat, acting out his self-appointed role as our defender from alien menaces. Since its 2005 revival (after an extended hiatus), Doctor Who has established itself as a favorite of fans and critics (at least those for whom this sort of fantastic television isn’t a bridge too far).
One could write a long series of essays discussing Christian themes and ideas in Doctor Who, but a couple are of particular interest to me right now. The one that preaches is the salvific power of love, which succeeds in saving people where other efforts fail. To give just two of many examples from the show, in the first series episode “The Doctor Dances,” it looks as though alien medical nanogenes are going to turn all of humankind into broken, gas-mask-wearing creatures with a hive mind (it’s a long, but extremely good, story) when, at the Doctor’s prompting, the mother of the boy who was the first to encounter the nanogenes finally approaches and hugs her now-inhuman son instead of fleeing from him. The net result is that the nanogenes start healing people rather than turning them into copies of a dead boy; the mother’s love has saved humankind from annihilation. Similarly, in “The Lie of the Land” from the most recent season, alien invaders are broadcasting a psychic signal which convinces the people of earth that the aliens have always been our rulers. Bill, the Doctor’s companion, retains her memories of real history by imagining conversations with her long-dead mother; in the end, while attempting to sacrifice herself to break the signal, the love in Bill’s memories proves stronger than the alien lies and, with their hold on people’s minds broken, the aliens retreat rather than fight. Again, love has saved humankind where violent solutions could not; I cannot watch such episodes without thinking that they resonate with the example of Jesus, whose love saves us where our own efforts to save ourselves cannot.
The other theme which presently interests me offers more of a challenge. After the first three seasons of Doctor Who in the 1960s, it became apparent that the actor playing the Doctor was in need of replacement, so the writers devised a concept that would eventually be known as regeneration: when a Time Lord’s body is dying, a biological process releases a burst of energy that heals and reforms said body. In addition to transforming the Doctor’s physical appearance, allowing a new actor to inherit the role, the regeneration also affects memory and personality, allowing the new actor to put his own spin on the role rather than impersonating his predecessor. The idea of regeneration poses interesting questions for Christians. In the person of Jesus, we believe in someone whose self remained even as his body was transformed; like Doctor Who fans who spend the first few episodes of a new Doctor struggling to recognize the familiar character in a new body, the disciples tended not to recognize the resurrected Jesus when he first appeared to them. For ourselves, we believe in a bodily resurrection (articulated from the earliest centuries in the Apostles’ Creed), but most of us also believe in the immortality of our souls independent of our bodies (and thus enduring even through changes in our bodies). So it is very interesting for us to contemplate someone like the Doctor, where the self remains even though the body and the personality of that self change dramatically, and consider how the same might happen to us as members of the body of Christ.
This past week, the BBC announced the actor who will inherit the role of the Doctor from Peter Capaldi during the forthcoming Christmas episode. The Doctor Who lovers of the internet exploded in a predictable mix of fury and jubilation when it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker will play the first female regeneration of the Doctor. Although the announcement of every new Doctor is greeted with dismay from at least some portion of the fandom, I still find it depressing that, in a show limited only by the imaginations of the writers, a female incarnation of the protagonist should evoke such rage, as though the Doctor’s bodily gender would prevent her from saving the earth where Daleks or Cybermen could not.
But then, we in the Judeo-Christian tradition have long had the same problem. Our Scriptures often implicitly deny that the humanity of women is equal to men; just in this summer’s Sunday readings from Genesis (for those following Track 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary), women are assumed to want children without being consulted, cast out into the desert for no reason, and bought and sold as brides. The idea that God calls women as well as men to administer the sacraments and otherwise lead the body of Christ remains controversial in most corners of the Church and unfathomable in many. Among far too many men, and at least some women, the idea of a female conveying God’s salvation is as inconceivable as the notion of a female saving humanity is for some Doctor Who fans.
However, the love of God is indeed limitless, and it is the height of hubris to imagine that God does not fully love women or cannot share God’s love through a woman as easily as a man. So here’s an interesting thought experiment: a woman claims to be the Second Coming, the Word of God incarnate. Do you automatically reject her, assuming that God would not save us through a female messiah, or are you open to the possibility that she could be the one for whom we wait, testing her as you would any man making the same claim? If we cannot conceive of a female Christ, then perhaps we need to spend more time coming to grips with the reality of women as equal humans; perhaps we need to pray that, in the body of Christ, we will be regenerated into that version of ourselves most capable of recognizing God’s image in all our neighbors and sharing God’s love with everyone.
The Rev. John Adams
*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot and characters of Wonder Woman (2017). If you haven’t seen it yet, why not? Straying into movie criticism for a bit, and setting aside the argument advanced below, Wonder Woman is about as good as superhero movies get, particularly origin stories. The acting (and the chemistry among the actors) is compelling, the action sequences are strong and (for the most part) don’t feel familiar from other action movies, the plot is straightforward and coherent, and it manages to balance a fun spirit with the consideration of serious issues (more on which below) better than most movies in any genre. So go see it; this essay will still be here tomorrow.*
In contemporary theological discussions of war, the so-called “myth of redemptive violence” is never far in the background. Coined by the Methodist theologian Walter Wink, the myth of redemptive violence is the term for a plot archetype that reinforces the ideology of a violent status quo. In the archetype, a violent, evil power rules and oppresses the world until a hero rises to oppose them. Through actions that may be similar to or even worse than those of the oppressor (particularly violence), the hero defeats the oppressor, inaugurating a new era that could only come about through the violent destruction of the old. Such stories (which occur in ancient mythology, religion, the interpretation of history, and various forms of entertaining fiction) encourage the readers and hearers to identify themselves with the new order and recognize that violence is sometimes necessary to defend that order. To quote Monte Python and the Holy Grail, a myth of redemptive violence invites folks to “come and see the violence inherent in the system” and understand that violence as a good thing.
As Christians, we must question and challenge myths of redemptive violence. In part, this is because we follow Jesus, who told his followers to put away their swords even when their leader was physically threatened (Matthew 26:51-52); his teachings compel us to seriously consider the possibility that no act of violence may be considered good. In part, this is because myths of redemptive violence train us to see those who oppose us and/or differ from us as less than us, deserving of violent oppression in a way we are not, which runs counter to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, 5:44). The danger in questioning myths of redemptive violence lies in the temptation to despair: if my religion, country, and worldview are predicated on such myths, I may stop trying to find anything good in them and give up on them entirely.
At least in my opinion, Wonder Woman does an outstanding job of presenting and challenging a myth of redemptive violence without succumbing to despair. The Amazon Princess Diana is raised on a magically isolated island in an ongoing myth of redemptive violence. After Zeus created mankind as good, his son Ares corrupted them with thoughts of war. Ares turned on his fellow gods and Zeus, able to temporarily neutralize but not kill his son, charged the Amazons with killing Ares when he resurfaced. Growing up in a community of warrior women, Diana was enamored with the martial arts that would be required to fulfill their mission.
When Diana leaves her home to seek and destroy Ares on the Western Front of World War I, she envisions completing the myth: using the Godkiller sword that Zeus gave to the Amazons for that purpose, she will slay Ares and, by doing so, redeem humankind from the violent tendencies that have so long enslaved them. In her understanding, following the contours of the myth, the death of Ares will remove his dark influence on the Germans (the aggressors and bad guys, who have already made war on the Amazons) and bring immediate peace. But she quickly becomes disillusioned, first with her inability to save the many non-combatants who are suffering during the war, then with her human allies, who, although fighting for the British, seem just as enamored of war as their German opponents.
After killing the German general she believes to be Ares, Diana becomes despondent that his death has made no difference, that the myth she believed is invalidated because the violence she committed failed to redeem the men who are fighting. At which point Ares shows up and further dismantles the myth: he tells her that, as god of war, he did not create violent human tendencies but only encourages those tendencies that are already present. On top of that, the Godkiller is not the sword, a single weapon to kill a single source of violence, but the person of Diana, a daughter of Zeus; while she can, and does, slay the god of war, she cannot so easily destroy the violence that lurks in the hearts of men.
In the modern-set frame at the beginning and end of the movie, Diana announces her conclusion: human nature is a mix of the good and the bad. While her own Amazonian violence can defeat other expressions of violence, human and divine, no violent action she could take would root the violence out of human hearts; as she says at the very end, “only love will truly save the world.” Admitting that my only knowledge of the character of Wonder Woman is from this movie and last year’s Batman V Superman, I find this frame particularly satisfying. Having involved herself in the wars of men, she understands that, while her violence can offer a significant advantage to one side, by fighting she cannot stop the human tendency to fight or even save those she loves. But rather than despairing and withdrawing from mankind entirely, she begins to work in antiquities (presumably because in doing so she can devote her energy toward saving good and beautiful things made by humans), again taking up her weapons only when Doomsday, a non-human monster, starts rampaging in her vicinity. She has rejected the myth that her violence will redeem mankind and instead sought a way to cultivate love and beauty; as Sia sings during the movie’s credits, “to be human is to love even when it gets too much. I’m not ready to give up.”
So as a Christian who enjoys movies that often depict violence as redemptive, living in a country that tends to frame its wars as necessary violence against irredeemably evil men, I find Wonder Woman a refreshing and rousing challenge, inviting us to question our leaders and lobbies that see violence as inevitable and, rather than despairing, imagine a future in which love, not war, is the defining feature of human interaction.
The Rev. John Adams