Christ and Pop Culture seeks to acknowledge signs where the Christian Faith meets the common knowledge of our age by discussing and demonstrating exactly how we ought to think about and interact with pop culture.We desire to be a faithful presence, honoring God and edifying our neighbor as we wisely participate in culture.
Jump in the way-back machine with Wade and Kevin and travel back to Hawkins, Indiana, as they review the latest season of Netflix’s hit original series Stranger Things. The Duffer brothers take a page out of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix‘s book, as teenage and romantic drama complicates the already-complicated plot set in motion by some nefarious Russians and an even more nefarious creature known as the Mind Flayer. If romantic comedies and the Beatles are more your speed, this episode also has you covered with a review of Yesterday, a high-concept comedy that posits an interesting scenario: What if everyone in the world except one person forgot about the existence of the Beatles’ music?
Music interlude by Magico Tree, “If There’s a Reason.” Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Despite the massive record-breaking spectacle that was April’s Avengers: Endgame—that brought together every superhero yet crafted for the big screen by Marvel Studios—Marvel President Kevin Feige said that moviegoers would have to catch one more film to close out the metanarrative that began with 2008’s Iron Man. The movie to end it all is, of course, Spider-Man: Far From Home, the second solo installment of Tom Holland’s turn as everyone’s favorite neighborhood web-slinger. Endgame seemed a natural resolution to the Infinity Saga, the extended story of how the Mad Titan Thanos laboriously gathered the Infinity Stones that would give him unlimited power over the galaxy—and, more importantly, the origin stories of the heroes who would stand against him. The Infinity Saga has been a massive storytelling feat, and the culmination of all the heroes to defeat Thanos at the end of Endgame was a glorious eucatastrophe, so why has Feige insisted that Spider-Man: Far From Home and not Avengers: Endgame is the end of the saga?
It reminds us that there can be no corporate heroism where there is no individual morality, that heroes are just people, as we are people, and their struggles are like ours.The answer lies with Tony Stark, whose story, more than any of the other heroes, holds together the disparate threads of the three phases of the Infinity Saga. Although Tony died at the end of Endgame, his legacy is so important that even in death, his story goes on. As I wrote previously, Tony Stark reconciled the two parts of himself and changed his legacy when he sacrificed his life to kill Thanos, but Far From Home makes it clear that his redemption is found in more than just these things—it’s found in a kid from Queens. Tony’s legacy is big, and he unquestionably saved the world, but his legacy is also Peter Parker, and in tying up the Infinity Saga with a personal story of one hero—as the Infinity Saga began—the MCU does what it does best: it reminds us that there can be no corporate heroism where there is no individual morality, that heroes are just people, as we are people, and their struggles are like ours. The outcome of massive world conflicts always boils down to individuals walking justly. The heart of the MCU has always been about such things.
Because it is about such things, the small stories should hold together the big ones. From a storytelling perspective, it makes sense to bookend the Infinity Saga with the stories of Peter Parker and Tony Stark, two characters who are not only specially linked, but virtual Doppelgängers. Even though Far From Home is not the origin story of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, it makes a much more logical mirror to Iron Man than Spider-Man: Homecoming would have. Peter Parker was far too idealistic in Homecoming. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, he had a clear vision and purpose to being Spider-Man and was eager to be an Avenger. Back in Captain America: Civil War (his actual introduction to the MCU), he told Tony Stark that he was being a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” because, “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.” Peter started off knowing that having powers means having an obligation to serve his neighbors. He knew right from wrong, unlike Tony.
In 2008 when Tony’s story began, he was a broken warmonger who went into a cave in Afghanistan, reckoned with his sins, and came out with a suit of armor and a desire to change his legacy. Before he turned his life around, the narcissism of Tony Stark hurt hundreds, even thousands, of people, and the legacy he was primed to leave the world was one of bloodshed and violence and shame. Tony Stark treated the world as his playground. No one was his neighbor—until he suddenly had to face the consequences of his sin.
What happens as a result of Peter’s trend toward benign neglect in the first half of Far From Home is just as damaging as Tony Stark’s benign neglect.The benign neglect that characterized the early life of Tony Stark is what we find in Peter’s character when Far From Home opens. It’s a different sort of benign neglect than what Tony suffered from before he went into that cave, for Peter is definitely no narcissist, but in a way it’s far more insidious because it’s one that can creep upon us all. It’s one of just wanting to take a break—to live a “normal life” while bad things happen around us. To look away. For Peter—the kid from Queens who has been through so much, who lost two father figures before leaving high school, and for whom the realities of war are all too near, who just wants to take a school trip and tell the girl he likes how he feels—he just wants a break.
In Far From Home, Peter is nearly crippled by his grief over losing Tony. The world expects big things of Spider-Man, since it’s public knowledge he fought against Thanos, and everyone feels the loss of Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and Vision. When Peter envisioned becoming an Avenger, he certainly never thought he’d one day be living in a world without these heroes, or be asked to fill the shoes of his mentor, and we see him longing to shed some of the responsibility he once craved. He doesn’t want to become the person he lost, he just wants to mourn him, but everywhere he goes, people ask, “Are you the next Iron Man?” Tony’s legacy feels like far too great a burden for Peter to bear.
These things lead Peter to abandon the principles that made him choose to be Spider-Man in the first place. He dodges calls from Nick Fury, he tries to leave his Spider-Man suit behind when he goes to Europe (but his Aunt May packs it for him), and when catastrophes literally follow him from city to city, he abdicates responsibility to a new “mysterious” hero nobody has ever heard of before. When Nick Fury tracks him down in person, he even goes so far as to tell Nick that he simply cannot help. He chooses self-preservation and comfort over the selfless heroism that has always marked his character before. What happens as a result of Peter’s trend toward benign neglect in the first half of Far From Home is just as damaging as Tony Stark’s benign neglect over his company’s warmongering in the first half of Iron Man.
Far From Home is not a film with a passive message, but one with an active call against benign neglect. The heroes in both stories have a responsibility to deal with situations they don’t really want to, even though their situations are far different. Peter has always been willing to help his neighborhood, and he thinks that by leaving his physical neighborhood, he can take some time off from the superhero duties that have become too heavy a burden for him to bear. He has to come to accept that his “neighborhood” is far bigger than Queens now, and the responsibility to care for his “neighbors” extends to anyone he sees who is in need. He doesn’t have to be Tony Stark—and, in fact, he can’t—but by taking up Tony’s mantle, he can learn how to not look away. The sentiment he extolled in Civil War has to be true all the time, or not at all. “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.”
As Peter works these things out over the unfolding of the conflict in the second half of Far From Home, more emerges, thematically, and I won’t spoil the twist of the film here. But by the end, it is a movie that asks, “What do you believe—about yourself, about the world, about truth?” And it asks these questions as only a personal narrative, a story focused on an individual and his or her struggles, can. Such questions might get muddled in a bigger movie like Endgame, but in following Peter Parker as he grapples with his place as a teenager and as a hero in a post-Iron Man world, the moral dilemmas become clear. Especially clear today, when we have so many big problems in the world that can feel overwhelming to individual people who often want to do the right thing, but don’t know how. We, too, must choose not to look away. Far From Home is not a film with a passive message, but one with an active call against benign neglect.
In Far From Home, Tony Stark lives on in a number of ways, and as his legacy passes to Peter Parker, the Infinity Saga finally comes to a close. Part of that legacy is that when Peter chose to be Spider-Man, he chose to serve the world and not look away, something he has to learn to do at great personal cost in Far From Home. He needed Tony, who went through such a long journey of heroic sanctification, to show him the way. In the MCU, the fate of the world often rests on the shoulders of one hero who makes the choice to do the next hard thing. But as Tony Stark and Peter Parker mirror each other not only in decisions to reject benign neglect, but in a father-son relationship, it is fitting that theirs are the personal narratives that tie together the ends of the Infinity Saga.
Seeing & Believing reaches the end of its Summer of Stan series this week, as the guys dig into Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s often underappreciated follow-up to A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s pet theme of humanity’s capacity for inhumanity is cloaked this time in the gentility of British high society as he follows the travails of a young man trying to make his fortune among the powdered wigs and “gentlemanly” warfare of the late 1700s. Wade and Kevin also take a look at a different vision of savagery with their review of Ari Aster’s bonkers horror thriller Midsommar, a sunny tale of terror and cults in the picturesque Swedish countryside.
Music interlude by Artemus, “My Little Regret.” Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.
What’s one of your first memories? Does it include a certain scent? A particular taste? What makes that memory come to life to you even now, so many years later? Hopefully you have positive memories from your childhood—a trip to the beach, the smell of funnel cakes at a carnival. But there are also memories you’ve probably tried to outrun: a bully, a teacher who wrote you off as stupid, or worse.
Casey Tygrett’s new book, As I Recall, invites readers to engage with their memories—both good and painful—as part of spiritual formation. Tygrett argues that “[e]ven though transformation is seen as a future-oriented work, memory matters in the sacred work of spiritual transformation” (4). Memories, which Tygrett frequently refers to as “shells,” (as in the jar of shells you bring home from a trip to the beach) create the stories we believe about ourselves, others, and God. Eventually, these stories become scripts by which we live our lives—sometimes in ways that keep us fragile and bitter, rather than living the lives of abundance that God has designed for us.
While scary, As I Recall is a reminder that entering into our darkest moments of sin, failure, or shame is not nearly as terrifying when we prayerfully enter alongside God’s redemptive presence.
As I Recall discourages the common mantra that we ought to simply “move on” from our painful pasts. If you’ve tried this, you know it is impossible. Instead, Tygrett encourages us to see that every memory—when we engage it in the presence of Jesus—belongs to our lives, and to our story. We desperately need Jesus to redeem our memories, to make sense of our most painful moments. When we are willing to honestly enter into our past with God, “[m]oments we have considered worthless or even harmful are suddenly given value by the God who heals–the God who lives not in calendar time with its various demands, but in kairos time, which is best described as nonchronological sacredness” (63). Tygrett points out the characters of the Bible who experienced painful pasts, like Joseph and Paul, did not forget what had been done to them or what they had done, respectively, but rather understood their pasts as examples of God’s miraculous redemption.
Allowing our painful memories to be redeemed, the book argues, also gives us wisdom. When we accept that all of our memories belong in the tapestry of our lives that God is weaving together into something beautiful, we are able to reach out to others who are experiencing pain today. We can offer what we have learned through our memories to younger generations so that hopefully they do not have to go through all of the same mistakes that we made. And finally, when we walk through the wilderness in the present, memories of how God carried us through past desserts can help us build resilience.
As I Recall seeks to help readers understand the importance of their memories in their spiritual formation. After each chapter, there are “Practice” and “Pause” sections that encourage readers to explore some of their own formative memories to better understand how those moments have shaped their story; the exercises also guide audiences to enter into those memories with God, asking Him to reveal how He was working in those times. For those who are frequent journalers, this is certainly a book that you want to open next to your notebook and pen.
Everything we do today is formed by our past moments. Certainly, then, we ought to be reflective of how our past has molded us. While scary, As I Recall is a reminder that entering into our darkest moments of sin, failure, or shame is not nearly as terrifying when we prayerfully enter alongside God’s redemptive presence. And when we allow Christ’s work to satisfy in those moments, our false selves can slowly be stripped away so that we can experience true, unhindered life.
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Imagine I came to you and confessed that I had stolen something from you many years ago, something that made it exceedingly difficult for you and your family to prosper. But rather than compensate you for my theft, or even return what I had stolen, I merely apologized. Naturally, you would be unsatisfied by my words. Imagine if I had said: “But it happened so long ago. You’ve overcome so much in the meantime, and your family has found a way to flourish in the face of hardship, even without what I stole from you. So returning or replacing it isn’t going to change anything. It’s only going to stir up bitterness. Besides, we’re both Christians, and you of all people should understand forgiveness.” You probably wouldn’t consider my apology contrite or Christian.
Unfortunately, this exchange is similar to the disposition of many Christians and U.S. politicians when the subject of reparations resurfaces. But I think we can do better. Holding our Christian and American freedoms in tandem, we can make amends for one of America’s greatest sins in tangible ways that don’t disregard the offense of the centuries-long enslavement and unjust discriminatory laws against African Americans. As Christians, how we engage in the conversation of reparations can be one of the greatest testimonies of our faith to the rest of the world.
The history of enslavement may seem distant and irrelevant to some, but for me and many other African Americans, the legacy is fresh and painful. On a recent visit to my grandmother’s house, we dug around in her archives looking for old articles, books, and pictures. At the cusp of seventy-five years old, she’s eager to pass along items of significance to her grandchildren that explain the history of our people. Her more meaningful contributions were in the form of first-person and second-hand stories that explain our family’s legacy and lineage. I watched her face contort into horror as she told us how her grandmother described what it was like to be whipped by a slave master and having salt poured in those wounds. And I responded in kind to her reenactment of surprise when she learned for the first time what her grandmother meant by “nursing” as she pointed out in pictures all the white babies she had nursed. As she relives those memories, I live them with her. That history courses through the blood in my veins too.
We’ve only partially enjoyed the truest sense of American independence and freedom as long as we support or remain apathetic to the indifference of a system that is insistent on overlooking past wrongs.
The pain of mistreatment and human devaluation lives on. It has not gone away. It carries social, economic, and financial consequences passed down to me and so many others. And it has come at the hands of a government that allowed such atrocities to happen under a rule of law. The system was broken for my grandmother, and her grandmother, and the level of retributive justice has been slow and minimal. What my grandmothers received was not recompense from a contrite government. Instead, what they received was earned through persistence and sacrifice from the bottom rungs of American hierarchy, oftentimes sanctioned by American churches. That I’m only a couple generations removed from being regarded as worthless in the eyes of my government and America’s largest denomination is a haunting reality. And in reality, 1-in-3 people that look like me are regarded as such by today’s criminal justice system.
In HBO’s recent documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, Stevenson, too, understands the proximal weight of an unjust system at play. Bryan Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which seeks to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in U.S. society. In the documentary, Stevenson recollects from his childhood when his grandmother took him to an old shack where his grandfather was born and told him to listen for a sound. He says it’s the same sound he hears when he goes into jails around the United States. “It’s the sound of suffering… agony… misery… and when you hear that sound of misery, it will push you to do things that you won’t otherwise be able to do.” One of those things we can do is figure out a way to repair what our systems have broken for generations, because, as Stevenson goes on to say, “There’s a history of untold cruelty that hides in silence in this country. And I think there are things we can hear in these spaces that can motivate us.” The point here is not that slavery was evil, which it was, but that it was a particular kind of evil that has never been truly reckoned with through restitution. And contrary to the opinion of some, ending slavery through a civil war does not count as restitution for slavery.
Unfortunately, many Christians of our culture turn a deaf ear to these untold cruelties. Some even echo Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s sentiments: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,” the senator told the press. “We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation, elected an African American president,” a president that McConnell and many others staunchly opposed. “I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it.”
To McConnell’s latter point, I must agree. There is no adequate amount of “compensation” for America’s gross iniquity of human slavery. Some acts of wickedness are simply irreversible. However, there can be just recompense. Just restitution. And former slaves were owed this. During the Reconstruction Era, the U.S. government considered and even began to act on paying restitution to African Americans by providing them avenues to acquire positions of elected power, land, and reparations. But ultimately the government reneged on these opportunities. Instead of making amends, it proliferated decades of further race-based violence and injustice. The United States stole labor from African Americans that it never paid back. Our nation owes a debt, and it needs to pay it, even if it is to the decedents of those who were wronged. Just because time has passed, the bill of justice the government is responsible to pay has not expired.
During a reparations hearing on Juneteenth of this year, author Ta-Nehisi Coates excoriated Senator McConnell for his dismissiveness on the matter. “Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell,” Coates said. “We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard,” he continued. “Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them.”
Coates’s words are a prophetic and stinging rebuke to any who joyfully celebrate Independence Day without also recognizing how irresponsibly that independence was implemented. The admonishment pierces the fundamental elements of those who sneer at even the thought of repairing what the American forefathers, and the many that followed, failed to make right. As long as Americans treat the darker origins of our country’s history with vague and empty words–bracketing past sins as nonexistent, nonessential, abstract, and inconsequential to our future–the cycle of human objectification will only take form in other unforeseen ways.
Why bring up such a controversial and heavy topic on the heels of a traditionally relaxing and leisurely holiday? Why must we keep returning to these same old, tired, controversial conversations over and over again? Why can’t we just move forward, relax, and enjoy the fellowship of family, friends, and fireworks? Because to do so is to numb ourselves with forgetfulness that anesthetizes a greater realized sense of freedom our society can experience. I believe we’ve only partially enjoyed the truest sense of American independence and freedom, and it will remain this way as long as we support or remain apathetic to the indifference of a system that is insistent on believing its past sins are somehow rectified because time has past. Lingering sin is still sin. The passing of time simply maturates its effects.
Many, however, adopt the notion that indirect culpability of American slavery and segregation lessens the burden of responsibility for the next generation. In the “Frequently Asked Questions” portion of Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, he is asked by an unnamed questioner: “I wasn’t even born when all this stuff happened. When my family came to this country, segregation already existed; we had nothing to do with segregating African Americans. Why should we now have to sacrifice to correct it?” Quoting Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he answers: “Your ancestors weren’t here in 1776, but you eat hot dogs on the Fourth of July, don’t you?” His point is that, “When we become Americans, we accept not only citizenship’s privileges that we did not earn but also its responsibilities to correct wrongs that we did not commit. It was our government that segregated American neighborhoods, whether we or our ancestors bore witness to it, and it is our government that now must craft remedies.” Unfortunately, too many of us Christians sit idly by, failing to concede that we live with enduring effects of slavery and de jure segregation. The longer we sear our consciences to these facts, the easier it becomes to avoid confronting both our gospel and constitutional obligation to reverse it. As a result, a chasm of the potential wealth African Americans could have accumulated and passed on to the next generation only grows wider. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that no one is advocating a transfer of wealth directly from white people to black people. This is a question of how the government might in some form, (through tax dollars perhaps) repay what is due to descendants of slaves.
Turning a comforting blind eye or reassuring ourselves of how far we’ve come as a country simply won’t suffice the comparable work of doing justice, which requires repairing (reparation) what is broken, whether we’re the people responsible for breaking it or not. When we allow our beliefs to become tangential matters in the way Jesus compels us to use our freedoms to love our neighbors; we deceive ourselves into believing there is no way to repair past—or even recent—American atrocities. But whether we choose to disregard the economic, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social inequities and strife caused by 250 years of American slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow legalized segregation, 150 ongoing years of disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, and continued housing discrimination, or not, it still exists and it is affecting your neighbor. The question for us Christians is now, will the church lead in demanding justice, or will we allow our nation’s “original sin” continue to mature with hollow words that lack action?
With the threat of Thanos ended in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Peter Parker can go back to being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man or can he? That’s the question that comes up in the latest entry in the MCU: Spider-Man: Far from Home. Wade and Kevin do a no-spoilers review of the film to examine whether the post-Endgame world of superheroes is still worth visiting. They also continue with the fourth film in their series on Stanley Kubrick with A Clockwork Orange. Malcolm McDowell’s depraved hoodlum Alex has been iconic ever since the film’s release in 1971, and the guys examine whether Kubrick’s plays on the audience’s sympathies result in a muddled curio or a complex cinematic classic.
Music interlude by Cighead, “Season of the Sun.” Used under Creative Commons license 3.0.
“Stand atop the mountain of your success and look down on everyone who’s ever doubted you.”
This is how Booksmart’s lead character, Molly, begins her day, listening to a tape of aggressive affirmations in a room filled with symbols of female empowerment and her own personal success: pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a “We Should All Be Feminists” print, a valedictorian sash already hanging on a graduation gown. She is smart, assertive, and driven, and Booksmart makes it clear from the beginning that she is unashamed about it.
We are experiencing a much-needed wave of female empowerment storytelling: everything from physical and supernatural strength in superhero films (Wonder Woman, BlackPanther, Captain Marvel) to intelligence and tenacity in more activist roles (On the Basis of Sex, Knock Down the House) to the coming-of-age stories of gifted or courageous girls (Stranger Things, Wrinkle in Time, or slightly older stories like grown•ish or The Bold Type).
Yet the more radical vision of flourishing for women would strike harder at the heart of the film’s concept: what if Molly’s real mistake was in her ultimate goal of power and success?
Booksmart tells the story of two high school seniors—Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever)—who are smart, driven, and have spent their entire high school careers focusing on academics and forsaking partying. Their assumption, bolstered by messages like Molly’s fairly vengeful morning affirmations, is that everyone else is wasting their lives with raucous fun, while they are focusing on what really matters: getting into good colleges in order to pursue successful careers. When Molly learns (in a graffitied school bathroom, naturally) that most of the kids who partied have also gotten into good schools, her world falls apart. Her entire worldview, the logic undergirding her actions and decisions, was based on the premise that she was better than everyone else because she worked harder and achieved more—and it was wrong.
Molly and Amy spend the rest of the film trying to pack in as much partying as they can the night before graduation (well, that’s mostly Molly’s goal, but Amy’s along for the ride). They approach their new goal with as much determination and intensity as they devoted to school, as if it is another opportunity to prove that they really are superior to their classmates. Just before a classic “getting ready” sequence begins, Molly asserts, “What took them four years we are doing in one night!”
Booksmart is hilarious, blending high-school-movie-raunchy moments with smart analysis of current teenage challenges. Feldstein is particularly captivating, bringing to life a character that many driven, assertive teenage girls will find comfort seeing on screen. She knows what she wants (she gives a fast-paced speech outlining her five-year plan that culminates in becoming the “youngest justice” ever), her drive is often met with derision (the principle of the school shuts his office door on her when she tries to go over the student council budget on the last day of school), and she bears the marks of strong female leadership (her “Class President” parking spot has the c and l crossed out). Molly represents the women who feel like “too much,” who face sexist misunderstandings for the personality traits that would be celebrated in men: confidence, assertiveness, ambition.
Molly’s drive and determination, however, are not merely misrepresented by her peers as “too much,” she really does cross the line repeatedly. Her aggressive morning affirmations are only an early sign that she has deeply ingrained ideas about success, work ethic, and human flourishing that are damaging to her and to others. When her and Amy’s differences eventually culminate in an all-out fight, the central crux of the disagreement is that Molly has a tendency to bulldoze over Amy’s desires and feelings and take charge of any situation. When she gets in a spat with a drama kid, Molly retorts that “some of us know how to win.” She tells Amy that only “weaker people” succumb to silly crushes, whereas her superior intellect knows better than to get entangled with high school jocks.
While Molly’s experience resonated deeply with me (a friend kept elbowing me in the theatre and saying, “That is so you!”), her unfettered determination to succeed at life reminded me of the unfortunate reality that a great deal of “women’s empowerment” only saddles women with the same harmful messages we give men. Instead of merely getting rid of the destructive stereotypes we feed women about how our value is tied up in our appearance, that our only acceptable role is in motherhood, or that we need to be quiet and submissive in all contexts, we have a tendency to replace them with another set of damaging ideas about human flourishing. Instead of affirming the value of work and family, of seeking relational and vocational flourishing, we often resort to the only other set of messages we know of: the ones we feed men, about finding their value in their vocational success, climbing the corporate ladder, and fighting and winning for material prosperity or power.
Booksmart gets so close to making this very argument—the central conflict of the film is Molly’s realization that maybe her narrow ideas of how to “win” at life are wrong, that maybe there’s value in building relationships with people who are different than her. Yet there’s no doubt that her initial pursuit is rooted in “winning” at something else: when Amy suggests they go home after a somewhat failed experience at one party, Molly persists, “We are A+ people, and we are going to an A+ party!”
Both director Olivia Wilde and stars Feldstein and Dever have spoken about the power of a high school film that centers on two “smart girls.” The film does an incredible job at portraying two female friends whose lives aren’t centered around a guy—or competition. They are two smart girls who aren’t portrayed as competing or comparing in any meaningful way, even though a careful viewer will notice that Molly wears a valedictorian sash and Amy wears the salutatorian one. Where many films only have room for one “smart girl” or play on the cutthroat woman trope, Booksmart makes these two intelligent and ambitious women natural friends. All of these elements are significant in advancing a better vision of flourishing for women: the girls are intelligent, they have a strong relationship, and their lives are more nuanced than wanting a boyfriend. Yet the more radical vision of flourishing for women would strike harder at the heart of the film’s concept: what if Molly’s real mistake was in her ultimate goal of power and success? What if, instead of making this destructive message an equal opportunity employer, we abolished it altogether?
During a recent Bible study, a group of women and I were discussing the first chapter of James. I asked what part of verse 19 (“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”) they found the hardest to obey. A brilliant woman chimed in that while she knew she needed to learn to be slower to speak and quicker to listen, she didn’t know what that looked like in her corporate context where women’s voices are routinely ignored or silenced. “I want to obey these words, but what does being slow to speak look like when I have to fight to be heard at all?”
Untangling these messages will take a lot of work—how do we avoid giving women the same harmful messages we give men about success and power, without reinforcing the stereotype that good leadership traits and healthy ambition are unfeminine? In spite of its flaws, Booksmart has moments that could begin to push us in the right direction. At one party, a friend of Molly’s says to her, “You try hard at everything. That’s what I like about you.” She’s clearly uncomfortable with both the blatant compliment from a guy who’s interested in her and the assertion that she tries hard (cardinal high school sin). But “trying hard” doesn’t have to be caught up in a narrative about power-mongering, it can be a way for men to affirm the gifts and drive of women in their life, a recognition that they too have been given a commission to steward and cultivate God’s creation. After Amy and Molly’s big fight, Molly admits, “I know women apologize too much, but I really am sorry.” It’s one of the rare moments in the film that strikes this balance: she recognizes a consequence of sexist expectations for women but also knows that apologies haven’t lost all value.
Booksmart is a fun, intelligent take on young desire, fear of rejection, the instability of young adulthood, and the weird and messy way we all find our own people and passions. It also lives up to its promise of a modern, empowering story about female friendship between two “smart girls.” The greatest opportunity it misses is to be even more radical than it thinks it is, by upending the very notion of success and power as the pinnacle of human flourishing. As Molly says in her graduation speech, “We have a lot more to learn.”
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World released in the United States at the end of February 2019, so it’s probable that if you were going to see it, you have and spoiler warnings are not necessary. However, if you’re like me and find yourself having to wait until the DVD is released for most movies, proceed with caution… there be spoilers ahead!
“What did you think of the movie?” I asked, somewhat awkwardly, as I bent down to hug my crying child.
“Bad. It was really bad.” A few sniffles and a shudder accentuated the words.
The tears started again as we moved into the theater hallway and found a small alcove out of the way. We stood there, my husband and I, with our sobbing children as other theatergoers shuffled past. I rubbed their backs, wiped a few stray tears from my own eyes, and murmured words of encouragement and understanding.
Friendships will change and move and end. Paths will verge and then curve away. Our lives will be intertwined with many amazing people and there will be partings that will be painful in ways we weren’t expecting.But to be honest, there wasn’t much I could say. This wasn’t a “There will be more, don’t worry” moment. And it wasn’t a “We can see the next one when it comes out” type of movie. This was the end of an era, the end of a franchise, the end of something that had fueled hundreds of hours of stories and play and childhood adventure in our home. This was How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, and it was an honest to goodness goodbye.
Goodbyes are really, really hard. They are painful and scary, and most of us avoid them at all costs. As a result, they aren’t common in the stories around us. To be clear, I’m not talking about death, though that is a huge goodbye in its own right. We absolutely witness mourning and death, both on the big and small screens quite a bit. No, I’m talking about saying goodbye in other areas of life: when friends or family move away, when jobs suddenly end, or when life slowly shifts and things are not what they once were. I’m talking about those times in life when we have to say goodbye to things or people we love, not because they have died, but simply because it’s time.
Even being raised in the church doesn’t help; in fact, for people like myself, it can make facing goodbyes even harder. “Goodbye is not the end” and “we’ll see each other again!” might be true, in a sense, theologically, but sayings like that can also make it harder to face the emotions associated with goodbyes in the here and now. At least they did for me. I’ve spent way too many years avoiding the pain of loss behind the hope of eternity, and while there may be a place for that, it’s not what we see in the Bible. Jesus himself spent a significant time preparing his disciples to experience the sorrow his goodbye would bring. He didn’t teach them to avoid the pain; rather, he taught them how to walk through it. He knew better than anyone that goodbyes are painful, but he didn’t shy away from that pain as I so often do. He moved through it. He remembered, he wept, he even raged, but he didn’t hide. And neither should we. But the truth is, we do. A lot.
We live in a time of reboots and remakes; nostalgia reigns, and we rarely have to be done with a story or character we love. There are open-ended fade-to-blacks. There are dream sequences and time travel rescues. There are sequels and more seasons and Netflix specials. There are a million and one ways TV shows, games, and movies save us from saying goodbye, but life is not as simple, or as kind, as all that. Life is filled with endings, and the truth is, we need to know how to face those well.
Goodbyes don’t come naturally to any of us, which is why movies like The Hidden World are so important, so heartbreaking, and so good. They show us what it looks like to face endings with grace and hope; to say goodbye when we’d rather stay but when leaving is the right thing to do. They show us loss tempered with happiness and teach us how to walk through the hurt say goodbye well.
The first movie in the series, How to Train Your Dragon, came out in 2010. It was the story of a Viking boy who didn’t fit in and the dragon who became his best friend. Hiccup is the scrawny, Viking teen, and Toothless is the last of his kind. Together, they formed an unlikely friendship and worked to convince their entire society that dragons not the loathsome, horrible creatures they were believed to be.
In each movie that came and throughout the intervening TV show, we saw and experienced Hiccup and Toothless’ friendship deepen. They saved each other’s lives multiple times. They rescued their village, faced loss and tragedy, and discovered new lands. And they grew up. We watched Hiccup and Astrid fall in love; they have their first kiss as teens, fall in love as young adults, and eventually became the leaders of their village. But as Hiccup grew up and found love, Toothless did not. Oh he grew up, to be sure. We saw him mature from the happy puppy-dragon he was in the first movie to the loyal, wise adult dragon of the last. Sort of. But through all of that is the fact that Toothless is the last of his kind.
When producers released the first teaser trailer of Hidden World, audiences went crazy for the beautiful Light Fury, a dragon that looked exactly like Toothless only with white scales to his black. We realized from those first moments of film, as we watch him bounce around trying to woo the female dragon, that Toothless had finally found love too. But what we didn’t know was what that would mean for his friendship with Hiccup.
The plot of Hidden World was fairly simple; the feared Grimmel the Grisly is on the hunt for Toothless, and by all accounts, they cannot stand against him. He has caught every other Night Fury and will stop at nothing to have Toothless too. Together, Hiccup and Toothless (with their friends) must stop Grimmel and save everyone and everything they love. It’s a story of hope and friendship. On a deeper level, however, it is a story about goodbyes.
Hidden World is laced with the theme of avoiding goodbyes. It’s the idea that runs throughout every plot and subplot, framing the conflict and nagging at our thoughts as we watch things unfold. And that’s fitting, I suppose, considering that we knew going into it that this was the last movie. Producers were very vocal about the fact that this was the end of the How To Train Your Dragon series; there would be no more shows and no more films. As audience members we knew that this was goodbye. But what many of us were not expecting was the writers to take their job so seriously and not just slap “The End” on the screen, or tack an epilogue on after the credits. Instead, the writers and producers of Hidden World used this as an opportunity to teach us how to say goodbye, to lean into the pain and walk us through it.
We expected a happy ending, an ending free of painful goodbyes, but part way through the film, the first goodbye came; the people of Berk are forced to leave their land and their homes. Grimmel’s reach is too far, and in a desperate attempt to keep the dragons safe and Toothless close, Hiccup convinces them that their best defense in a new home. In a very real way, the first goodbye that the writers brought us was a mild one. It was a testing the waters sort of goodbye in which they allowed us to see both an end to something but also the hope that that ending could bring. But it was still painful and unexpected. They left the home that they had rebuilt and defended and rebuilt again for generations. This first goodbye set the tone for the story that the writers were telling, reminding that this was a story about endings.
Throughout the rest of the movie we face many more goodbyes. We say goodbye to Gimmel (which was easy to do; he was horrible), goodbye to Stoic the Brave (through Hiccup’s memories), we even momentarily say goodbye to Hiccup when we think he’s going to sacrifice himself to save Toothless. But the hardest goodbye, of course, comes in the last moments of the movie when Hiccup becomes aware of two important things: this world is not safe for dragons and the Hidden World is. Hiccup realizes that keeping his friend close is not the same thing as keeping him safe.
Grimmel the Grisly may be gone, but there will always be another hunter trying to take their dragons. Hiccup finds that his fear of losing his friend is actually keeping him in danger instead. And while he doesn’t want to say goodbye, the time has come when it’s the right thing to do. So Hiccup says the hardest goodbye of all and gently encourages his friend to go with the dragon he loves and live in safety, to take his place as alpha among the dragons of the Hidden World. It was a simple, tearful goodbye. It was a painful awareness of the situation, and heartfelt remembrance of all they had been through, and a hope-filled promise that, just as they had survived countless adventures together in the past, they would survive this parting as well.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched Toothless lead the dragons away. It was not just the end of a franchise; it was the end of a friendship that has been a part of my life for years. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I wanted to live with the hope, even the slim hope, that there might be a sequel. I wanted to let my imagination create stories where Toothless came back or where the humans moved to the Hidden World. But even in that the writers did not lessen their determination to teach us how to say goodbye, for once again they leaned into the pain and walked with us through it.
In the final scenes of the film we watch Hiccup and Astrid marry, see the town rebuilt on the new island, and see Hiccup and Toothless reunite ten years later. Ten years. It’s a happy moment where Hiccup and Toothless’s children finally meet and begin a friendship of their own. But while it was a sweet meeting, it did not ease the pain. Not really. By adding that scene the writers reinforced the fact that ten years went by without the friends seeing each other. Ten years of hurting, or waiting, or wondering. Ten years of learning to move on, learning to be happy again, learning to let go. It was a sweet scene but rather than lessen the goodbye, it reinforced the magnitude of what was lost and what was gained. It was hard to watch, it was painful, but it was necessary to show us how to be okay with the hurt and how to say goodbye.
Goodbyes are hard and unnatural. We go to great lengths to avoid them both in our daily lives and in the stories we enjoy. But the reality is, in this world we live in, they are a real and present thing. Friendships will change and move and end. Paths will verge and then curve away. Our lives will be intertwined with many amazing people and there will be partings that will be painful in ways we weren’t expecting. And like Washington singing to Hamilton, “If we get this right, we’re gonna teach them how to say goodbye,” the writers of Hidden World made the hard decision to walk us through the pain and say goodbye with us. They showed us goodbyes in all their gritty pain and walked us through them, giving us glimpses of the hope but not shying away from the finality ether. And while it was hard to watch, it was also good. It brought tears, but it also taught us a little bit about the importance of allowing ourselves to face goodbyes well.
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
This spring, author Suzanne Collins announced the May 2020 release of a new Hunger Games novel, an untitled prequel set 64 years before the events of her wildly successful Hunger Games trilogy. Comprising The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, the original trilogy follows the exploits of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who “volunteers as tribute” to take her sister’s place in the infamous Hunger Games. A gladiator-esque fight to the death, the Hunger Games are meant to keep the citizens of Panem—Collins’s vision of a future America—subservient to the Capitol, an oppressive and opulent fascist regime. The twist of the tale, however, and what makes these books young adult, is that these gladiator games are fought between children.
It is The Hunger Games that, in a relatively short span, both popularized and fatigued YA dystopia. Like most dystopian stories, The Hunger Games is filled with horror and with dire warnings, but as a story intended for children and teens, it has the potential to cast its darkness against a greater contrast than adult stories of the same type. Whereas a trademark theme of young adult literature is hope, when Suzanne Collins introduced Katniss Everdeen to the world, she injected the YA market with the grim and hopeless foretelling that marks the dystopian genre—and she seems poised to do it again.
When The Hunger Games first became popular, dystopia was more commonly relegated to adult audiences—classic stories like 1984, Brave New World, or more recent ones like The Handmaid’s Tale or The Road. Adults seem better suited to handle dystopian literature, which is grimdark, a form of science fiction set in a future where everything is bad (dystopia is the opposite of utopia). Science fiction falls under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction, but science fiction is uniquely speculative, grounded as it is in the present. It is not fantasy, which transplants our human struggles into “other” realms. Science fiction tries to foretell the future of our own world, looking forward—a speculation, an “if/then.” Although science fiction writers still transplant human struggles into a realm that does not exist, they do so with the audacity of believing that someday what they are writing could, possibly, come true—at least in some form. Perhaps writers of the sub-genre of dystopian literature are the most guilty of this particular hubris, and because dystopian settings are by definition bad, authors of such stories have to pull from the present to imagine what could go wrong in the future.
What we see from YA dystopian authors will tell us much about what these authors perceive to be the greatest challenges facing young people as we move into the future—distant and not-so-distant. It will tell us about the authors’ fears (personal and fears for others), their challenges, their anger, and their view of society. It will also reveal how these authors perceive us to have gotten where we are, because dystopian futures are often just stand-ins or exaggerations for our current cultural moments. Some dystopian stories even present solutions, if the authors believe they have them. Dystopian futures are full of problems—by definition, they have to be—and authors of these stories want their readers see what has gone wrong in their worlds and to look around in their own world to draw parallels. For example, a dystopian story set in a world where people have resorted to cannibalism because climate change has decimated all our natural resources carries a not-so-veiled warning for the reader to take heed about the impending dangers of climate change. Dystopian stories of the past—YA or otherwise—told us what the authors feared then. Dystopian stories of the present and future will likewise uncover present anxieties and carry a similar predictive power.
Subverting readers’ expectations is always a good way to get them to pay attention, and dystopian authors want you to pay attention.
And we are living in a cultural moment ripe for dystopian fear. It’s actually remarkable the YA market hasn’t already turned back into the dystopian winds, with adult shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle (both adaptations of novels) racking up viewership and awards. Not to mention our vehemently divided political climate and the very real and varied human rights abuses we seem poised to tolerate. These are extreme times during which people adhere to extreme positions. Not all the anxiety is overblown, or unfounded. So why hasn’t YA dystopian literature returned before now, especially when it is taking up ample space on our television and movie screens, and in real life?
I think the answer is a simple matter of capitalism. Following the success of The Hunger Games trilogy, the world of young adult dystopian literature exploded with copycat books pouring out of publishing houses like ants out of a dead log. Everyone was eager for a slice of the trend, and before long the market was so saturated with YA dystopian literature that the largest publishers stopped acquiring it. Many speculated that YA dystopian lit was dead. Half a decade ago, I myself was trying to interest an agent in my first YA dystopian novel. She read it, said she loved it and was interested in it, but she wasn’t able to sign me or acquire it as the market was “too saturated,” and she had no confidence that she would be able to sell it. I could not fault her. Publishing, as always, remains a business, no matter how ideological those involved may be.
But the business of publishing can be cracked wide open with an announcement like Suzanne Collins’s recent one, opening it up to a new generation of dystopian writers who can bring fresh perspectives to what is happening in our current age. Not all of them will be great “takes” or worthy of serious analysis, but all of them will be windows into the minds of writers who are concerned about the future of our youth, our nation, and our world.
Although The Hunger Games came along and dominated best-selling lists in the late aughts, it was not the first dystopian tale successfully told for children. Most notably, Lois Lowry’s The Giver comes to mind. In fewer than 44,000 words, The Giver manages to be full of both horror and hope, something few dystopian stories balance well. It is not a flashy narrative of youthful rebellion against a fascist regime, but a thoughtful one where a young boy must take on himself the memories of a society that wants to preserve “sameness” at all costs. In the process, that boy (Jonas), learns about love and pain, and must flee with an infant boy named Gabriel to save the child from death at the hands of those who rule and enforce the sameness. The Giver is widely read and acclaimed, and other YA dystopian stories, such as Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) have achieved success far beyond what most books will ever reach, but it is The Hunger Games that truly shifted the public’s awareness of dystopia into the YA arena.
What we gain from this shift to youthful characters is greater than just a broadening of the market. Good dystopian literature springs out of an author’s earnest desire to make sense of what is happening in the world, thus grappling with what that means for our future. Dystopian stories tend to be grand-scale stories, while still focusing on the individual’s place and responsibility in society. In shaping hypothetical futures where everything turns out bad, dystopian authors paint pictures of a world saturated in sin. Whether they choose to acknowledge this terminology or not, this is how they establish the base premises and conflicts of these types of stories. A world where children are pitted against each other to fight to the death is a world saturated in sin. A world where one infant is chosen to live over another because it weighs slightly more is a world saturated in sin. Sin, the effects of sin, the choices we make because of sin, the decay of sin—these form the base realities of dystopia, and when you place the horrors of dystopia on the shoulders of children, those horrors become that much clearer.
Subverting readers’ expectations is always a good way to get them to pay attention, and dystopian authors want you to pay attention. Juxtaposing the innocence and hopefulness of youth against the horror of dystopia is a shock to the system. We may stomach gladiatorial combat between adults, but children killing children is too much to bear. Baby Gabriel should not have to die for being different from the other infants. Such things are not meant to happen to children.
YA dystopia should present to us sins that, as a friend once told me, “we can all rage at together,” but I fear we live in a time where we can no longer agree on those things. We are keeping children in internment camps on our own soil and bickering over whether or not toothbrushes and soap are necessary for their well-being, and it does cause me to wonder whether or not we have lost our moral compass entirely. A society that allows such treatment of children is in need of far more than some dystopian tales of warning about where we could end up in the future—we are in need of repentance, of the Gospel of Christ—but I know the dystopian stories we tell are still important. Those that will be rooted in this cultural moment, now that Suzanne Collins has made them lucrative again, will reflect the ugliness of this age. They will place children in unimaginable scenarios and ask us to imagine them. And in those stories, we will see that the sins against the “least of these” that seem so ludicrous, are not so ludicrous at all. They have been before us all along.
Crash! CRASH! Camera slow-pans up through animated and color-graded smoke to reveal the titanus gojira extraordinaire, with fiercely burning eyes and dramatic jaw release:
Cameras love to pan Godzilla. Alas, so do some critics. Several weeks after King of the Monsters released, the film is being cited as one proof of a lackluster summer box office. Apparently, other creators’ attempted franchise structures keep getting flattened by the swinging tail of Disney-produced behemoths like Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4.
That’s too bad, because though I just arrived to this franchise after seeing Edwards’s 2014 film, I’ve quickly become a Godzilla fan. At least, there’s much to admire in this new version of the titanic beast, who is not merely—as I may have previously assumed—some monster who stomps on skyscrapers because he’s evil or even careless. Rather, across both films this Godzilla is presented as a good monster. He’s a force of nature, but nature at its best. This beast is not just an avenger versus a mankind that meddles with nature, but an avenger who steps in to oppose evil creatures who would (incidentally) do mankind harm.
In Godzilla (2014), humans—to some critics’ bemusement—seem to do little to advance the story. Two unidentified creatures have arisen to wreak havoc. Scientists, from secret monster-hunting cabal Monarch, expect Godzilla to confront these creatures and reinforce his rule over Earth. Which Godzilla does. To the tune of many thousands of lost lives and billions of dollars in property damage ensuing in Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco.
Godzilla-worship is idolatrous in reality, but this fiction helps us simulate “worship” of a great entity, despite its terror and ability to wound us.
Yet, near the film’s end, grateful survivors gather to say things like, “He saved us,” with something like reverence, as the recovering titan slips into the ocean to return home.
In King of the Monsters, creators step up the humans’ story line, but also clarify this fictional universe’s Godzilla–centered worldview. As one Monarch scientist says, even in the trailers, “This is Godzilla’s world. We just live in it.” Another beholds the monster’s power and says, “Good thing he’s on our side,” to which another hero carefully remarks, “For now.”
In the film’s story, we may—and should!—become shocked when we see just how much the creators commit to this idea: Godzilla is the good monster. We must join him. Yes, no matter how much he destroys or how much more powerful other monsters seem to be.
In other words, as we may quote about another fantastic king of beasts: Godzilla is not safe. But he is good. And it’s best to be on his side, even if he swallows up cities and realms.
The film’s flawed characters help to argue this fictional, Godzilla–centered “worldview.”
Early on, the film introduces us to one family, including a paleobiologist with Monarch, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga). She has developed a machine to send signals to the kaiju—that is, other monstrous beasts like Godzilla. Although Dr. Russell ends up kidnapped by eco-terrorists, we soon learn she is actually cooperating with this group. They even go to Antarctica so the terrorists can awaken a slumbering devil: the tyrannical, hydra-like kaiju from outer space, Ghidorah, who of course can shoot electric beams from his three heads.
That’s the most fantastical part. What’s not so fantastical is Emma Russell’s stated motive for working with terrorists. To her ex-husband, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), Emma insists she is doing this to bring balance to nature. Mankind is destroying the earth with pollution and such-like. The ancient kaiju are supposed to rule the Earth, right? So she will awaken all the monsters, let them reclaim their rightful place, and then the planet will be cleansed.
Mark doesn’t buy it. And neither do we. Because, despite his own hatred of Godzilla and the kaiju, Mark realizes Emma’s real reason: she’s grieving the loss of their son, Andrew, killed during the previous Godzilla-versus-critters duel in San Francisco. Mark realizes that, like him, Emma has not healed from this trauma. This is perhaps the film’s most tragic and even most realistic element: In her grief, Emma will use high language like “save the planet” and “natural order,” even as she is deceived and works to overthrow the world’s natural order. After all, she is not actually returning Earth to rule by its true “king,” Godzilla. Emma is actually enabling all kaiju to fall under the thrall of the imposter king Ghidorah whom she herself awakened, who doesn’t belong here, and who fell to Earth like lightning or a star.
As Mark and Monarch rush between kaiju lairs, dodging monster storms, Mark himself comes to grips with the terrible beast who disrupted his family. Other nature-over-humans monster movies might show how puny mortal man can’t blow up Godzilla no matter how hard we try. This story simply shows how a man is, effectively, wrong to blame the planet’s rightful kaiju-king for his own pain. Only by something like repentance can he start to heal.
A Monarch scientist who studies kaiju history, Dr. Ilene Chen, even tells Mark that only Western myths make dragons into villains, while Eastern mythology emphasizes the harmony between these creatures and us. She even says, “Sometimes the only way to heal our wounds is to make peace with the demons that caused them.”
At this suggestion, biblical Christians may rightly blanch. Nope, we’re not in the business of making peace with demons—that is, fallen angels and likely agents of temptation. However, if we change this term “demons” to a metaphor, the message holds true—yet it’s still offensive in other ways. Should we really “make peace” with the things that caused our wounds? This is a hard saying; who can listen to it? Yet if Scripture is correct and God himself, without being the author of evil, still forms light and darkness, and makes well-being and creates calamity (Isaiah 45:7), then we need to consider that yes, like the suffering biblical man Job, we need to find ways to make peace with the not-safe-but-good entity who caused our wounds.
In Godzilla’s world, this peacemaking figure is Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). This Monarch scientist does not only respect Godzilla; he venerates him as one would a deity.
Eventually, when his crew descends to the depths in search of the beast, we discover this veneration has historical precedent. At least one ancient tribe founded an entire civilization literally worshiping Godzilla as a god. Later, Dr. Serizawa soon gets his chance to meet the great beast, and for him, just the chance to touch its skin is worth a redemptive death.
The film plays this straight, still committed to its own insistence that Godzilla would be worth this devotion by modern men and that this devotion will help set all things right. In fact, when Mark begins to join with Godzilla, and even Emma sees her error, we feel their family relationship begin to be restored—similar to news headlines, over the end credits, that show how Godzilla’s arrival has helped to heal the planet. And as Emma herself makes one final sacrifice to stop Ghidora, she pledges fealty to Godzilla: “Long live—the king.”
Well, in the real world, all this would be idolatrous. The film’s ancient worshipers even had “images of birds and animals and reptiles,” which recalls Paul’s warning in Romans 1:22–23 against exchanging God’s glory for the lesser glory of created beasts. Only in Godzilla’s world—where God isn’t mentioned and godless evolution basically assumed—would this worship makes sense. Even if it destroys you. Even if other monsters appear stronger.
Here the Christian reaches friendlier territory. Godzilla-worship is idolatrous in reality, but this fiction helps us simulate “worship” of a great entity, despite its terror and ability to wound us. That means we can argue from the lesser to the greater. In the world of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, this beast truly exists, and ancient worshipers and modern scientists both believe Godzilla is worthy of their reverence. Inside the story, all this very nearly makes sense, and in the story, we don’t even feel revulsion to these moral claims.
Therefore, outside the story in the real world, how much more can we accept that a truly infinite God—who does exist, who is ancient and eternal, and who easily defeats all his evil foes—is infinitely more worthy of our real-world worship? Yes, even if he wounds us? Even if he causes disaster? Even if he has the right to make vessels for honorable or dishonorable use (Romans 9:21)? Even if he slays us, as Job claimed God might slay him (Job 13:15)?
In fact, when God himself finally spoke to Job to respond to that suffering righteous man’s challenge of the Almighty, God did not reply with theodicy arguments. He did not outline theology, or directly debunk Job’s presuppositions. Instead, God pointed to creation—to the very creatures that men could potentially idolize. Creatures like this happily familiar beast:
“Who can open the doors of his face?
Around his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields,
shut up closely as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can come between them.
They are joined one to another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezings flash forth light,
and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
His breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes forth from his mouth.
In his neck abides strength,
and terror dances before him. . . .
“He makes the deep boil like a pot;
he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
one would think the deep to be white-haired.
On earth there is not his like,
a creature without fear.
He sees everything that is high;
he is king over all the sons of pride.”
—Job 41:14–22, 31–34
There you have it. After Job has suffered and demands that God explain why he has allowed it, God himself appears in the whirlwind. He thunders with divine sarcasm about his right to rule the universe however he wants, then basically says, “I made Godzilla. Your point?”